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Remembering the Palomares H-bomb Incident via History

On January 17, 1966, a Cold War crisis began after an American B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 refueling tanker over the southern coast of Spain. The accident demolished both planes and left seven airmen dead, but it also unleashed the B-52’s payload of four thermonuclear bombs, two of which spewed radioactive material over the sleepy village of Palomares. Another weapon plunked down in the Mediterranean, triggering a frantic 11-week search by the U.S. military and a propaganda battle with the Soviets. 50 years later, take a look back at one of history’s most notorious “broken arrow” incidents.

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Even as they officially denied reports of a broken arrow to the press, the U.S. military was engaged in a massive search and recovery operation. Acting on a tip from Spanish fisherman Francisco Simó Orts, who claimed to have seen the fourth nuke plunge into the Mediterranean, the Navy began trawling the waters off the coast of Palomares with an armada of ships and two state-of-the-art submarines, the Alvin and the Aluminaut. When March 2 arrived with still no sign of the missing weapon, the United States finally admitted to the world that it was hunting for a hydrogen bomb in Spain. Officials gave updates on the cleanup process underway in Palomares, but vehemently denied Soviet claims that the missing weapon threatened to contaminate the sea. On March 8, U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke even held a much-publicized “swimming party” where he took a dip at one of Palomares’ beaches to prove the water was safe. “If this is radioactivity,” he told reporters, “I love it!”

A week after Duke’s photo stunt, the submarine Alvin finally located the missing fourth bomb in 2,500 feet of water some five miles off the coast. Retrieving it proved to be no easy task. A cable snapped during an attempt to bring it up on March 26, and the Navy task force lost track of the bomb until April 2, when Alvin found it a second time. Finally, on April 7, 1966—nearly three months after the B-52 crash—the waterlogged nuke was successfully winched from the depths and brought aboard the Navy ship USS Petrel. Reporters were allowed to photograph it the following day. According to the New York Times, it was the first time the U.S. military had displayed a nuclear weapon to the public.

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Despite its relatively clean bill of health, there is evidence that nuclear material still lingers in Palomares. In 2006, the Spanish center for energy research, or CIEMAT, announced the discovery of radioactive snails in the region. Other examinations have yielded contaminated debris and higher than expected levels of plutonium in the soil, and certain parts of the town remain fenced off and closed to construction to this day. In October 2015, after several years of negotiations, the U.S. government signed a statement of intent to assist Spain in finishing the 50-year-old cleanup process in Palomares. Along with the removal of the town’s nuclear-contaminated soil, the deal also calls for any waste to be disposed of at a site in the United States.

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