Sixty years later, the hangover of a nuclear catastrophe continues to haunt Spain: Palomares returns

There are hangovers that last forever. Or almost. Well they know it in Almanzora caves, a small municipality in Levante Almeriense, bathed by the waters of the Mediterranean. He January 17, 1966 Their neighbors saw how two US Army planes collided overhead during a maneuver that left a fateful balance: seven deaths and, most alarmingly, the detachment of four thermonuclear bombs. Two were recovered shortly afterward, undamaged. The others released their cargo in Palomares, one of the nuclei of Cuevas de Almanzora. Almost 60 years later, the children and children of the children of the witnesses to the accident are still waiting to be released from that poisoned inheritance.

And the Government has just made a move to achieve it.

What has the Government done? Dust off an agreement subscribed more than seven years ago —in October 2015— by the Governments of the United States and Spain and which basically contemplated the removal of the cubic meters of earth that is still contaminated in Palomares to transfer them to the Nevada desert.

The news advances her The countrywhich assures that a few months ago the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially requested the US Secretary of State to turn what was agreed in 2015 on paper into practice. The request would have already reached the US Department of Energy and, although Washington has not yet ruled, the sources consulted by the newspaper assure that its initial reception has been “positive”.

What did the 2015 pact say? What it embodied was a political commitment, a declaration of intent in which both governments, then led by Barack Obama and Mariano Rajoy, showed their willingness to solve a problem inherited from the Cold War. The deal was announced in October the Secretary of State, John Kerry, and the Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, and set the two Executives homework: the objective was for Madrid and Washington to close an agreement for Palomares “as soon as possible.”

The pact did not have legal value, but it came accompanied by two good signs: first, it showed that the issue was on the public agenda; second, the two states claimed that their intention was to negotiate a “binding agreement.” The approach would be for Spain to assume the cleaning work and the US to manage the contaminated land, taking care of it in “an appropriate location.” And on your floor. “Repair the mistake that was made 50 years ago”, Garcia-Margallo celebratedwho assured that the final text was already “very advanced”.

And why return to the subject now? Despite the fine words, the Kerry-García-Margallo joint press conference and the statements that pointed to an immediate binding agreement, the reality —ensures The country— is that the treaty never came to fruition. The political framework did not help. Months later in Spain they celebrated a general election that left such a complex scenario that the elections were repeated just half a year later. On the other side of the Atlantic there were also an important relief who ousted the Democrats from the White House: in January 2017 Trump became president of the United States.

Now the stage has its own peculiarities. Spain is back in election year and the US also has a presidential appointment with the polls in November 2024. Not only that. Spanish regulations keep areas contaminated by radioactivity in a regulatory limbo and from the Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) —key in the development of the regulation that clears this scenario— have recognized The country jobs are way behind. The greater the handicap of the cost that the operation would have for the Spanish coffers.

Are they all disadvantages then? from the government slide the good time through which relations between Madrid and Washington pass, a backdrop that they trust will help achieve an agreement on time. It is not the only factor that makes up the canvas. The Executive has dusted off its request at a very special moment, coinciding with the negotiations with the US to expand the number of destroyers of the Navy stationed in Rota, still without a definitive agreement. The government’s plans would in any case go through addressing them as two separate issues and not using it to put pressure on Palomares.

What remains of the 1966 accident? “A stigma” that is remembered every year, regrets the mayor by Cuevas de Almanzora, Antonio Fernández. Not all of the legacy of the 1966 accident is however abstract and symbolic. Let’s remember. That January 17, a B-52 and a US KC-135 tanker plane collided in the middle of a refueling maneuver. As a result, four thermonuclear bombs were released. Two ended up dispersing their plutonium charge.

The United States did not take long to deploy a device to recover the projectiles and clean up the area, a job that ended with 4,810 barrels full of earth and radioactive waste. The Regime approved it and a few months later it issued 900 certificates in which it guaranteed the locals that the land was free of contamination. And to highlight it, both for the national and foreign galleries, the Minister of Information and Tourism himself, Manuel Fraga, stuffed himself into a bathing suit to take a dip on the beach.

Why all the fuss now, then? Because the environment was not as clean as then the Regime and the US sold. In 2008 Spain found two trenches of highly radioactive earth, with an average depth of three meters, 10 meters wide and 30 meters long. “Two trenches of 1,000 cubic meters each with radioactive material have appeared,” they explained at that time from the Ciemat. The legacy that still endures in the area has led to the fencing off of several plots that occupy an area of about 40 hectares. In total, it is estimated that the soil contaminated with half a kilo of plutonium adds 50,000 cubic meters.

The decontamination plan drawn up in 2010 contemplated treating the affected land to reduce it to about 6.00 m3. The compacted earth would be introduced into containers that could be transferred to the port of Cartagena to begin their journey to the US. According to estimates when García-Margallo and Kerry announced the agreement, the operation would take between one and two years and cost around 640 million euros. The Spanish coffers would assume 200 for compacting, packaging and transport.

Cover image: Mike McBey (Flickr)

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Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a freelance writer working on news website. He contributes to Our Blog and more. Wise also works in higher ed sustainability and previously in stream restoration. He loves running, trees and hanging out with her family.

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