The tragic Palomares nuclear incident

The Cold War was one of the most unstable episodes in the world at the political and international security level; and it is that during the years that this conflict lasted, the arms race endangered the citizens of the planet. The constant fleets of bombers armed with nuclear bombs crossed the sky, so it was not unreasonable that one fine day tragedy would unleash. And that was how in 1966 the most scandalous broken arrow accident (total loss of nuclear weapons) in history was triggered, as well as being the one that took the most silence.

The accident occurred in Almeria, more specifically in Palomares . On January 17, 1966, an American bomber loaded with 4 hydrogen nuclear bombs set out to carry out a series of refueling maneuvers with a KC-135 filled with flammable kerosene. Some error, still unknown, caused these maneuvers to end in an accident and therefore the two planes ended up exploding in the air.

The nuclear bombs fell to the ground, 3 of them to the land surface and the last to the sea. These bombs were up to 74 times more powerful than those that ended Hiroshima and Nagasaki , and therefore the catastrophe could have meant the complete disappearance of Almeria. However, thanks to a safety mechanism they did not detonate; Of course, two of the three that fell to the ground were destroyed, leaving their plutonium cargo exposed to the earth’s surface within an area of ​​2 square kilometers.

It was at that moment that the American troops arrived en masse to try to clean the place and thus silence the event. On the one hand, they wanted to prevent the spread of the mistake they had made, on the other, they had to recover the bomb that had fallen into the sea by any means possible, for fear that an enemy country would get hold of it.

These cleaning and search operations cost the United States approximately 80 million dollars (we understand that the value increases taking into account the time) and despite the fact that the efforts to leave the area completely clean were many, it is estimated that 15% of the plutonium it was completely scattered and was therefore unrecoverable.

The bomb that had fallen into the sea could only be recovered after 81 days of uncertainty, days in which the collaboration of a fisherman who saw the incident was crucial. Francisco Simo Orts was in charge of helping the troops until the end, receiving some 8,000 of the old pesetas for each day of search.

The efforts to silence the event were many; although it seemed impossible to hide the most serious accident of all time. Even so, both the American and Spanish authorities tried to launder the image. How? Well, bathing in the waters of the area and portraying the moment to make it clear that the danger was minimal. So Manuel Fraga , Minister of Information and Tourism at that time, bathed in those waters in order to avoid rumors.

To this day there are numerous rumors that in reality the minister would not have touched the water in the area. The place of the images would have been taken from the coast of Mojacar (15 kilometers away) coinciding with the date of the inauguration of the National Parador in the town.

Little is known about the consequences in the population; and it is that during the Franco period, the files were kept with great suspicion. Files that were completely declassified with the arrival of the next government.

Palomares is currently the most radioactive town in Spain. Something that does not seem surprising considering that the life of the radiation discharged in the area could have an average of 24,100 years.

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