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Remembering the Time America Nuked Spain by Accident via Vice

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So here’s what happened: on January 17, 1966, a US B52 bomber collided with a refueling aircraft in Spanish airspace. The crash meant that four hydrogen bombs were dropped. Two hit the ground at speed, imploding and releasing plutonium into the soil of the Andalusian town of Palomares. Meanwhile, parachutes were deployed on the other two bombs. One hit the ground without detonating and the other landed in the Mediterranean Sea still intact. It wasn’t until late last year that America agreed to clean up the resulting contamination and ship the soil back to the US, where it will probably end up in Nevada.

Professor John Howard is an American academic, author, and photographer. He has spent the last five or so years traveling to Palomares in order to document the remains of the nuclear disaster with his camera. While he can’t photograph the remains of the plutonium—despite the fact it still sits within the soil—he instead captures the ramifications of this incident on the people, economy, and landscape of Palomares.

Howard’s project, entitled White Sepulchres, was released as a full body of work earlier this year. It tells the story of the coverup and impact of the bombs through its eerie, desolate imagery, which stands in contrast to the visceral and violent images we might have seen of Chernobyl or Fukushima. Recently, I spoke to John about one of the forgotten stories of warfare in the 20th century.

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Didn’t people notice a huge explosion at the time?
Well, one thing is crucial to understanding the US response to the incident. The bomb that landed in the Med, it took them 80 days to get it out. They brought in 32 ships, closed the seashore. People couldn’t fish—some people starved. This bomb became the object of international press attention, and very cunningly, the Air Force told Navy photographers to give the press images. The thinking was to give journalists something of interest so as to shift the attention away from the land to the sea. That bomb became the lost bomb—singular—and it worked brilliantly. Then President Lyndon B Jonhson’s Spanish ambassador even went swimming in the Mediterranean to prove its safety—it was the front page of the New York Times.

Why do people in Andalusia not speak about it more today?
People with financial interests in the area—wealthy people, landholders who still have agriculture there—they don’t want their migrant farmworkers to know they are harvesting soil that contains plutonium. Nowadays, there’s also a tourism industry, and the proprietors of those venues don’t want visitors to know that thousands of barrels of hot soil were filled and then shipped away for burial. Actually, not all of it was shipped away—some of it was left there and buried; a literal coverup.

What is that hazard exactly? What are the health risks from an accident like this?
We don’t know how much plutonium lives on. Some have estimated that ten kilos of plutonium were spilled. To put that into perspective, one milligram of plutonium in your lung will give you lung cancer. So that’s the level of severity. If a kilo or two is still on the ground, then anyone could inhale it on the wind. We know plutonium is in the food chain, but ingestion isn’t as severe as inhalation, which they say is a guarantee of lung cancer. I’m not only worried about the people who have lived in Palomares a long time, but the people who pass through, who will never be told.

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