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Palomares Cleanup

Spain has announced that the US may cleanup the results of an H-bomb accident it caused in the little village of Palomares 46 years ago.

Almost half a century after the U.S. Air Force accidentally dropped four hydrogen bombs near a remote Spanish fishing village, the Obama administration may help clean up plutonium-polluted soil there.

Readers of The Theory That Would Not Die will recall that the nuclear bombs fell outside Palomares after two US Strategic Air Command jets collided during refueling over the Mediterranean coast. The Bayesian search for one of the bombs lost at sea is described in The Theory That Would Not Die.

Although the nuclear material in the bombs did not detonate, the conventional explosives encasing two of the bombs did explode, spreading plutonium over a wide area. The U.S. military shipped 1,300 cubic meters of contaminated soil to the Savannah River nuclear reservation in South Carolina.

On February 3, Spain’s foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo announced that the U.S. has given “guarantees that it is going to remove contaminated earth from Palomares … as soon as possible,” according to a report in the Madrid daily El Pais. García-Margallo said he plans to discuss the cleanup in person with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Margello’s announcement coincided with another by American diplomat Kathleen Doherty, who told El Pais, “We are working on a proposition for the Spanish government. … Until we present it formally, no more details will be given. But we hope that this will take place shortly.”

Other than periodic blood tests of Palomares residents, interest in the accidents subsided after the accident.

During the late 1990s, however, the housing boom reached Palomares, and earthmoving equipment revealed that air and soil in two trenches dug by the American soldiers in the 1960s had abnormally high levels of plutonium.

Plutonium’s alpha rays are too weak to penetrate the skin or clothing and, if they are ingested, they pass out of the body in feces. Inhaling the rays can cause health problems, but government studies 30 years after the accident reported that Palomares’ residents had inhaled far less than the maximum safe dose identified by international health authorities. However, plutonium decays over time into americium, which is more volatile and detectable.

The Spanish Center of Energy Research, Environment and Technology sampled the soil and found radiation levels 20 times higher than that considered acceptable for human habitation.

Subsequent investigation revealed two trenches filled with about 50 thousand cubic meters of soil contaminated with an estimated half kilo of plutonium. Each H-bomb held between 4 and 5 kilos of plutonium, according to the Spanish.

Recent Spanish technology suggests that the contaminated earth can be safely filtered and compacted to about 6,000 cubic meters, slightly more than two Olympic swimming pools. The smaller volume would be easier to transport.

The U.S. government resisted paying part of the cleanup for decades because of the high cost and the possibility of setting a precedent.

However, the US Embassy supported Spanish requests to clean up the area in a confidential e-mail revealed by Wikileaks last year. In the April 2009 message, the US embassy in Madrid told Washington DC that, “Should the US government decide not to help fund a clean-up, we anticipate Spanish government surprise, significant negative publicity, and some negative impact on other areas of our bilateral relationship,” according to The Guardian in January 2011.

Significantly, the Spanish foreign minister made his Feb. 3 announcement at a press conference with his Moroccan counterpart. That’s because Morocco may want clean-up funds too. As reported in The Theory That Would Not Die, a wheel casting on a B-47 jet failed in 1958 at a U.S. Air Force airbase in Sidi Slimane in Morocco, then French Morocco. The jet contained an unarmed H-bomb. Although it did not explode, the jet’s fuel tank did and a fire raged for seven hours.

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