Arts, Culture & Media

Palomares, the H-Bomb and Operation Moist Mop

In Spain, a different sort of nuclear controversy continues. In fact it dates back to the 1960's, when two American Air Force planes collided in midair and exploded, dropping four nuclear bombs on a tiny Mediterranean farming village.

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The accident did not cause a nuclear explosion. But radioactive material was dispersed over parts of the town and farmlands. The US led a huge clean up. But they didn't get it all.

For decades Spain has been demanding the Americans finish the job. And there may finally be a resolution.

The US government calls nukes that go astray Broken Arrows. On a sunny January morning in 1966, Palomares got four of them.

Overhead, at 31,000 feet, an American B-52 bomber collided with a refueling plane and broke apart. Three of its H-Bombs fell to land, the fourth into the sea.

A local guy named Manolo Gonzalez said he was outside when he heard this tremendous explosion.

"I looked up and saw this huge ball of fire, falling through the sky," he said, at his house in Palomares. "The two planes were breaking into pieces."

Gonzalez saw one half of the flaming bomber crash to the ground right about where the local elementary school stood — where his wife was teaching.

"I went flying across town on my scooter," he said, "but the plane had just barely missed the school itself."

In fact no one on the ground was killed that morning. Townsfolk call it the only positive part of this story. The Americans weren't so lucky. Seven US airmen died. Four others managed to eject safely from the burning planes.

"I saw two parachutes coming down," Gonzalez said. "I got in my car and drove after them."

There were only two cars in all of Palomares in 1966, and one phone, and no running water. But the skies over that poor region of southern Spain were being criss-crossed daily by the world's most modern war machines. It was the height of the cold war, and the US had B-52 bombers in the air 24 hours a day, in case of a Russian first-strike. Southern Spain was along one flight path.

Within days after the crash, the beach in Palomares became a base for a massive military operation, involving some 700 American airmen and scientists.

Their goal: to find the nukes, and secure them.

Science writer Barbara Moran wrote a book about the accident, called The Day We Lost the H-Bomb. She says locating the bombs was especially urgent, because some of their toxic payload had spilled out. Two of the bombs that fell on land broke open and scattered plutonium dust across the countryside — dust that the wind was blowing into the air, meaning people might inhale it. Plutonium is especially dangerous if it gets into your lungs.

"To clean it up," Moran said, "what they decided to do was remove the contaminated dirt from the most contaminated areas."

That is, literally scrape the first three inches of topsoil up, seal it in barrels, and ship it to a storage facility, back in the US.

"They did have a plan in place," Moran said. "And they even had a name for the operation. I think it was moist mop. But it was supposed to happen on a nice flat piece of ground in the US, not on foreign soil where nobody speaks English and there are all these farmers and goats walking around."

As the clean up got underway, the US and Spanish governments set out to convince the world that they had things under control, that there was no danger. Then US Ambassador Biddle Duke came down from Madrid for a swim, before the TV cameras.

When asked by a reporter on the scene if he'd detected any radioactivity in the water, Duke replied with a laugh: "If this is radioactivity I love it!"

The US wrapped up Operation Moist Mop four months later.

As a precautionary measure, the US and Spain agreed to fund yearly health checks on residents. And to monitor the soil, the water, the local crops, the air. For decades. Over the years there's been no evidence that anyone has fallen sick as a result of the accident. The food and water remain clean.

So most everyone has forgotten about Palomares. Except the people of Palomares. Because the US's Moist Mop missed some spots. Jose Maria Herrera is a local journalist who's been investigating the accident since the 1980's. He stood recently on a ridge overlooking one of three fenced-off, contaminated areas. (In all, we're talking about some 100 acres.) Herrera pointed to a hill within the fenced area.

"That crater there," he said, "is where one of the bombs fell. You could extract at least half a pound of plutonium from the soil there today."

Actually, just how much plutonium is still out there is hard to determine, because the US has never said how much the bombs were carrying to begin with. But Spanish investigator Carlos Sancho estimated that between 15 and 25 pounds of the material ended up in the soil. Sancho runs the Palomares section at CIEMAT, which is roughly the Spanish equivalent of the US's Department of Energy. He insisted that the plutonium that remains does not pose health risks— as long as these sites remain undisturbed.

"The earth there can't be moved because the plutonium is latent in the soil. he said. "If we disturb the soil the plutonium could be dispersed."

So Palomares is like a sleeping dragon. Let it lie and there's no problem. Yet townsfolk say that in itself is a problem. They say the sites still cause extensive damage.

Local barman Andres Portillo said the damage is to the town's image. "Every time the story hits the media," he said, "it hurts tourism. A lot of people don't want to come here because they think the quality of life must be low, that cancer rates are higher. When that's not the case at all. "

Some here say that without the negative publicity, this cown could be every bit as popular as its more famous neighbor, Marbella.

So Palomares finds itself trapped. When residents complain, the accident makes headlines again. And the number of visitors drops. As do the prices farmers get at market for their produce.

But now, forty-six years after the accident, there are indications that Spain and the US may be closing in on a permanent solution. In February Spain's foreign minister Jose Garcia-Margallo met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then with reporters.

"Secretary Clinton has said this will be resolved before her mandate is up. 'I am personally committed,' she said."

Though the US State Department quickly released a statement saying that no such commitment had been made, serious talks are underway, says a spokesman for the US embassy in Madrid. As to when an agreement might be reached — over who pays for the second cleanup, how it will be done, where the contaminated soil will be stored, and so on — that's still up in the air.

So the residents of Palomares wait. As they have for nearly half a century. And, from time to time, they allow themselves to dream.

Palomares Deputy Mayor Juan Jose Perez said he hopes he can turn the tragedy into something positive. He'd like to build a museum explaining how it all happened.

"Maybe even in the shape of a B-52 bomber," he said. "We could offer guided walking tours through the affected areas."

But he says for any of that to happen, this story first needs an ending. For him, it would end with the US coming back and finishing the job.

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    A sign in Palomares warns people to stay away. Only authorized personnel can access the fenced off areas. They've been contaminated with Plutonium since 1966, when a U.S. B-25 bomber exploded overhead while refueling, dropping three H-bombs onto the town. Two busted open and scattered the radioactive material. The U.S. led a huge clean up, but didn't get it all.

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    Palomares, the H-Bomb and Operation Moist Mop (Photo: BBC)