The recovered hydrogen bomb displayed on the fantail of the submarine rescue ship USS Petrel (ASR-14)

50 years to clean up the radioactive mess

In January 1966, two US military planes carrying four nuclear bombs crashed in the South-East of Spain (Palomares, Almería), spreading highly toxic plutonium over the area and killing seven of the eleven crew members. Three of the H-bombs were hastily collected on land, but it took more than three weeks to find the bomb that had fallen into the sea with its radioactive payload. It became a grave concern, mostly because -in the midst of the Cold War- the nuclear bomb could end up in the wrong hands.

The Tourism Minister at that time, Manuel Fraga, tried to calm the local population by taking a swim at Palomares beach, showing he was not afraid of the potential contamination. Moreover, the fascist regime of General Franco censored the information of the disaster, with the collaboration of the American media, seeking to avoid damaging to the tourism sector. However, 20 years later, scientists proved that Palomares had become the most radioactive town in Europe and the most plutonium contaminated area in the world.

The story was so widely followed that numerous film-makers from across the globe were interested in turning it into a movie. The star, of course, would be Paco: Francisco Simó, popularly known since then as ‘Paco el de la bomba’ (‘Paco, the bomb man’), the fisherman who witnessed the crash and spotted the exact place where the bomb fell.

Around 50,000 cubic metres of contaminated soil (the volume of 30 olympic swimming pools) were left there for 50 years while Spain and the US kept trying to reach an agreement on how to carry out a definitive cleaning of the accident site, where some of the areas have 20 times the permitted level of radioactivity. Wikileaks cables showed the Spanish Foreign Minister insisting on this matter in every meeting. The cost of the operation has been estimated at € 640 million, which includes the construction of a highway to move the polluted soil by truck from Almería to Cartagena port, the final destination before being shipped to the US. Spain does not have facilities to store plutonium.

In a recent visit to Spain, the US Secretary of State John Kerry and Spanish Foreign Minister JM García-Margallo reached an agreement to clean up the site, fully 50 years after the incident. It is still unclear if (and how much) contaminated soil would be sent back to the US, where it would be stored (the Nevada Security Site has been suggested) or who would be paying for the cleanup. Negotiations are being kept quiet as the deal may include missile shields in Rota (US naval station in Spain) or the right for the US to use a Spanish military base for military actions into Africa.

50 years to address the issue? Henry Kissinger once said: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” Where does this put Spain then?

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