- PALOMARES, Spain -- Almost
40 years have passed since the U.S. Air Force accidentally dropped four
hydrogen bombs on Spain. But the fallout continues with a newly published
scientific study that traced the spread of radiation from the accident
site -- and continuing rumors about a mysterious fifth bomb that supposedly
is still leaking on the Mediterranean Sea floor.
- Ironically, while the scientists who conducted the study
discount the fifth-bomb theory, their findings have fueled the rumors.
They reported that the Mediterranean, indeed, has been contaminated --
but only from radioactive material that washed into the sea from the bombs
that hit land. They also said current levels of radioactivity pose no threat
- The story goes back to Jan. 17, 1966, when a B-52 bomber
and a KC-135 tanker aircraft collided during a refueling exercise over
the sleepy farming village of Palomares on Spain's southeastern coast.
- Both planes disintegrated and down went the B-52's four
hydrogen bombs, creating the first U.S. nuclear weapons crisis near a populated
area. Each 1.5-megaton bomb packed 100 times more explosive power than
the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.
- Two were found intact. One fell on land, the other into
the Mediterranean, where it was recovered after an 80-day effort dramatized
in the 2000 Hollywood film "Men of Honor." The movie spotlighted
U.S. Navy diver Carl Brashear, who lost a leg in the effort.
- Non-nuclear explosives in the other two bombs detonated
when they hit the ground. Hydrogen bombs contain conventional explosives
that trigger the nuclear blast. Seven pounds of plutonium were splattered
over 558 acres of Palomares, forcing an $80 million clean-up by the United
- Military crews hauled away 1,500 tons of radioactive
soil and tomato plants for burial at a nuclear waste dump in Aiken, S.C.
Some radioactive material inevitably was left behind, perhaps as much as
15 percent of the total.
- "The remainder of the original plutonium clearly
has spread, and spread widely," said William R. Schell, a University
of Pittsburgh emeritus professor and a member of the international team
that reported on the accident in the current edition of the journal Science
and the Total Environment. "There's been quite a bit of migration
into the Mediterranean."
- Radioactivity was detected in western Mediterranean plankton
-- tiny plants and animals that drift in the water and serve as staple
food for fish and other larger organisms. "It was a surprise,"
said Joan-Albert Sanchez-Cabeza of the University of Barcelona, head of
the research team.
- Sanchez-Cabeza explained that plutonium does not dissolve
easily in water. Yet somehow, plutonium and a related radioactive material,
americium, got into the water and were taken up by marine organisms.
- Plutonium is extremely toxic and lingers in the environment
for ages. It takes 24,000 years for half of a given amount to decay.
- Plutonium outside the body is relatively harmless because
it emits a form of radiation that cannot penetrate skin. But when absorbed
into the body from air, food or cuts in the skin, it can cause cancer and
other serious health problems.
- The research team found that the highest radiation levels
in the plankton were well below the human danger level set by the World
Health Organization. It also learned that the plutonium apparently does
not accumulate to higher levels in the fish that eat plankton -- a matter
of particular concern to the Spanish, who eat a lot of fish.
- "We think that the plutonium found in plankton should
not be of serious concern to the public," Sanchez-Cabeza said. "But
further research and monitoring is needed."
- The study revived rumors that a fifth nuclear bomb from
the Palomares accident was never recovered and remains submerged in the
Mediterranean, leaking radiation.
- A Spanish radio news program dredged up the old stories
right after the new study was announced. "That has been a local rumor
or worry in the area since the accident," the station's commentator
noted. "Well now, the latest radioactive readings in local plankton
have started to rise. I'll leave you to decide for yourselves if there
is another bomb."
- Sanchez-Cabeza, noting the lack of any documentation
to support the fifth-bomb theory, said, "Well, that's a big one."
- American B-52 bombers in the 1960s typically carried
four hydrogen bombs. In another of more than 30 known "Broken Arrow"
incidents between 1950 and 1980, a nuclear-armed B-52 crashed near the
Thule Air Base in Greenland in 1968. Crews recovered four nuclear bombs.
- Researchers dismiss the fifth-nuke stories and believe
that contaminated soil from Palomares eventually washed into the ocean
after heavy rains. Wind-blown dust, which contains the same chemical "fingerprint"
as the radiation found in the soil at Palomares, may be another source.
- The U.S. Department of Energy and its Spanish counterpart
are monitoring the health of Palomares' 1,500 residents. The Energy Department
said the accident so far has caused no known radiation-related cancers
or other health problems.
- In 2002, the U.S. Air Force surgeon general re-analyzed
the radiation exposure of 1,500 U.S. military veterans involved in the
Palomares clean up. Their work involved packing contaminated soil in steel
drums, burning tainted crops and roto-tilling fields to bury radioactive
material. The surgeon general concluded that they were exposed to only
one-tenth the current radiation limit for workers at commercial nuclear
power plants and other facilities.
- The Air Force study reached similar conclusions for 700
personnel involved in cleaning up the Broken Arrow incident in Greenland,
which happened when a B-52 caught fire and the crew was forced to bail
out. Conventional explosives in the hydrogen bombs detonated in that incident
as well, spreading plutonium and other radioactive material over the ice
- In his 1997 book "America's Lost H-Bomb," the
late Randall C. Maydew, a government nuclear weapons guru who helped design
arming, fusing, firing and safety systems, wrote that the Palomares case
and other Broken Arrow episodes produced at least some beneficial fallout:
They prompted designers to make weapons less prone to release radioactive
material in the case of an accident.
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