This story, although old, is still obviously current dealing as it does with the nuclear option, now much in our minds because of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Back in 1966, on the 17th of January, two large American planes were flying over Spain; a B52 and an inflight-refueller, KC135.
The two aircraft were en route for Turkey and were going to re-fuel in mid-air as is common.
But something went wrong, no one knows exactly what, and an explosion rocked the B52, which also caught the KC, and both planes, seriously damaged, immediately began to fall.
A ditching was being prepared for when a second explosion effectively destroyed both planes and what was left of them began to freefall towards the south east coast over the area of Los Palomares in Almería.
Four of the seven-man crew of the B52 managed to get out and parachute into the sea where they were rescued by small fishing boats; the other three didn’t make it. All four of the KC135 crew perished.
But what happened next was even more nightmarish: the B52 was equipped with four thermonuclear hydrogen bombs, 1.5 megatonnes each, and these bombs began to drop towards the earth, one of them ending up in the sea and which wasn’t found for another 81 days.
The bombs, happily, were not armed and so could not explode. However, upon hitting the ground, they released a radioactive cloud of plutonium oxide, which spread over 226 hectares.
A Spanish Chernobyl, although less dangerous, had become a reality. The radioactivity quickly spread throughout the area, seeping into water and soil. The problem with radioactivity is the numbers. The half-life of plutonium is 27,000 years, when it begins decaying into americium, which is even more dangerous and unstable (named after America, natch). Not that this was much on the minds of the local citizens—the plutonium was bad enough for the near future.
What followed was odd. The area was obviously considered a no-go, and yet not much was done. Experts localised the affected areas but these weren’t even fenced off and treated (i.e. buried) until 2004.
Cultivation in the affected soil went on for years till it too was finally prohibited. Palomares for years has been stigmatized and avoided except by men in white space suits. The US paid the Spanish government €300,000 a year to offset the costs of containment, but they ceased to pay this in 2009.
Every year the locals who stayed are subject to tests, although no one has ever tested positive; all local fauna and flora too, the cows, watermelons, even the snails, are tested.
The consequences do not appear to be as serious as they could have been, and yet Palomares remains outcast, a nuclear curiosity, a post-modern copy of the original fear that nobody wants, just like those old Westerns that were filmed nearby. If you’re into nudism, they have some great beaches out that way. I bet you could get a real great glow, if you know what I mean….