It was in 1966 when a B-52 bomber of the United States Air Force with four Hydrogen bombs onboard was undergoing an air-to-air refuel from a huge KC-135 Stratotanker when both collided and came crashing down to the Earth in one of the worst nuclear disasters to have ever faced by the USA or its NATO allies. Each of those Hydrogen bombs had the destructive capability of about hundred bombs like those dropped on Hiroshima and thankfully, they weren’t armed or else that part of Spain would have been a nuclear holocaust unprecedented and deadlier than our wildest imaginations. Despite the efforts of the NATO forces to locate those bombs and bring them under nuclear regulation authorities, the crash still has ramification today, fifty years after the horrific accident.
To the people of Palomares along the coast of Spain’s beautiful Andalusian region, the morning of January 17, 1966, exactly fifty years ago was routine. It wasn’t until men came in camouflage and started evacuating the entire area due to radiation leak that people got to know what was wrong. As a result, to this day, the area is closed for people due to fears of radiation leaks. Here is a sign warning people not to overstep this boundary.
It all happened during the refuelling attempt made over the region. The B-52 was on a standard Cold War-era 24-hour mission. It was aimed to provide deterrence towards any potential attack made by the Soviets against the US allies from Eastern Europe. While the refuelling was done, the refuelling beacon overshot the bomber and struck the craft with such a force that its entire left wing was blown away. First to go was the poor refueller and its 30,000-gallon jet fuel was ignited and caused complete destruction.
The B-52 with its huge wingspan took some time to fall and eventually most of the crew members got out using parachutes while they haplessly watched the nuclear bombs plummeting towards the ground. It must have been a truly hopeless site. The crew knew what they had unleashed on the area. Not instant destruction like in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or even Chernobyl, but as slower, deadlier dirty bombs that could expose millions and millions of people directly to radiation. The nuclear bombs didn’t detonate, but what we need to realize is that they become dirty bombs instead and silently spew radiation to an even larger radius.
Over 50,000 cubic meters of Earth remained contaminated with radiation. It wasn’t until last year in 2015 that the US Secretary of State John Kerry signed an agreement with the Spanish government for successful disposition of the contaminated soil. Why did the US, the champion of Nuclear code and Nuclear non-proliferation take that amount of time to correct its own wrongdoing? I guess the successive governments didn’t give a damn until now.
Since the aircraft involved in the crash were huge, the residents also suffered from the incoming debris directly. Landing gear pieces, fuselage and other parts of the plane were thrown at a considerable area around the crash. 83-year-old Pedro Flores was one the ground when one of the bombs landed practically on his feet and exploded the conventional blast material inside that converted it into a dirty bomb. One of his mates even kicked it before they realized something was wrong and they hastily backed away from it. I cannot begin to apprehend the kind of damage their tissues would have faced from the radiation in such close quarters.
Eventually, all four bombs were recovered including one from the sea shown above. It was lucky that only a small amount of weapons-grade Plutonium was found to be blown around, so people were relatively safer owing to their stroke of luck. But, Palomeras itself, wasn’t and it was soon evacuated by the khakis.
Thank God those days are finally over as countries like US have become more responsible with their nuclear weapons with the passage of time and have limited these crazy military doctrines with live bombs onboard. They now rely more on missile defense systems.