Spain says US to help in nuclear clean-up

February 3, 2012 - 4:55 PM

MADRID (AP) — Spain said Friday it had received guarantees that the United States will help clean up land contaminated with radioactivity after a mid-air collision in 1966 dumped four U.S. hydrogen bombs in the country's south.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said he will discuss the clean-up with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Saturday.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Jeffrey Galvin said it was premature to say a deal had been struck, but the clean up had been a subject on the agenda at recent bilateral meetings.

"There's definitely good will and Secretary Clinton did say we're taking this seriously and we're aware how sensitive it is for Spaniards," Galvin said.

The bombs were released on Jan. 17, 1966, when a routine refueling operation went disastrously wrong. A B-52 bomber and a refueling plane crashed into each other, killing seven of 11 crew and raining 100 tons (90 metric tons) of flaming wreckage over 15-square miles (38 square-kilometers) around the village of Palomares, whose population then was around 600.

None of the H-bombs exploded, but the plutonium-filled detonators on two went off, strewing 7 pounds (3 kilograms) of highly radioactive plutonium 239 across the landscape of the region of Almeria, and one bomb was spotted by a fisherman splashing into the Mediterranean Sea.

In those days, at the height of the Cold War, it was U.S. policy to keep nuclear-armed warplanes in the air constantly near the Soviet border.

Under an accord with the government of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939-1975, American B-52s had permission to rendezvous over Spanish airspace with KC-135 tanker refueling planes.

Local farmer Martin Moreno tried to pry loose with a screwdriver a souvenir from one of the fallen 1.5 megatons weapons, each 75 times more powerful than the one that devastated Hiroshima, but was unable to do so.

A contingent of 800 American troops rapidly arrived to scour the land and soon found three bombs, cleaning up the worst of the radioactive mess.

A crisis flotilla of 34 U.S. Navy ships carrying 2,200 sailors, 130 navy divers and four mini-subs was assembled to search for the bomb missing at sea.

Francisco Simo, the fisherman who had witnessed the bomb's splashdown, was ignored because a supercomputer had calculated where the bomb should have been from its probable descent trajectory, but after weeks only chunks of airplane had been found.

Eventually, Simo was summoned back and he sent searchers in the right direction, having memorized the site with visual triangulation, a mariner's trick used since the times of Phoenician traders.

A two-man mini-sub called Alvin finally located the missing nuke at a depth of 655 meters (2,162 feet) on March 1, 1966.

The Spanish government built a wire fence around the area where the two semi-detonated bombs fell and has warned against construction, saying it wasn't a good idea to stir up soil there.

Another B-52 carrying four H-bombs crashed off Thule, Greenland, in 1968 but the plutonium contamination occurred at sea. Palomares was the first case of nukes lost and recovered in a populated area. The village is now home to some 2,000 people.