On a cold winter night in 1966, a B-52G silently flew over the small village of Palomares, Spain. The bomber was part of the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command and was tasked with carrying four Type B28RI hydrogen bombs on a round trip mission from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina across the Atlantic, along the Mediterranean Sea, and along the European borders of the Soviet Union before returning home. A flight of this magnitude required two mid-air refuelings over Spain. The first refueling went with a problem. The second refueling ended in disaster.
The B-52 pilot later recalled coming into the refueling fast, but he was not told to break away. The planes collided. The refueling boom struck the top of the B-52 breaking a longeron and snapping of the left wing. The ensuing explosion killed all four men in the refueling KC-135 and three of the seven in the B-52. In addition to sending the four remaining men to the ground, the explosion sent four hydrogen bombs hurtling toward the Spanish coast.
Within 24 hours of the accident three of the bombs were located. One had landed in a river bed, and was left relatively intact. Two others had hit hard on either side of the Spanish town of Palomares. According to a declassified report by the Atomic Energy Commission, those two left house sized craters on either side of the village when the conventional explosives went off. The final bomb was recovered from the ocean floor two months later after an extensive search of the area.
Almost immediately after the bombs fell, the alarms sounded on the U.S. Air Force bases in Spain, and troops began being loaded on buses to be shipped to the crash site. The explosions, while not nuclear had spread plutonium particles and dust all over the village and surrounding tomato fields. In today’s terminology, it would be classified as a dirty bomb and would likely merit evacuation.
However, because both the U.S. government and the Spanish government wanted it cleaned up as quietly as possible so as not to disrupt the coming tourist season, everyone was told it was completely safe. The villages were told they could remain in the village, and troops dispatched to the crash site were not provided any type of protective gear and were told that they were safe.
Troops were then sent out to walk amongst the highly contaminated tomato fields and to pick up radioactive fragments with their bare hands. This exposed the troops to significant radiation both via external exposure and inhalation. Exposure to radiation has long been known to cause a multitude of health problem.
After the initial cleanup, troops were sent into the fields to cut down the contaminated tomatoes with machetes, throw the vines into chipping machines and to burn the resulting mulch. To further the rouse that there was no potential for danger, the U.S. Airforce subsequently bought the contaminated tomatoes that locals refused to eat and fed them to the troops.
During the cleanup process, the military did send a medical team to assess how much plutonium the troops were absorbing. The team gathered over 1,500 urine samples. Today, those tests are the most prominent example the Air Force uses to show that the troops were not harmed by radiation. However, the men who conducted the tests state that they were deeply flawed. In an interview with the New York Times Victor Skaar, who worked on the testing team states, “Did we follow protocol? Hell, no. We had neither the time nor the equipment.” He goes on to explain that protocol required two samples over a 12 hours period and stated that they took a single sample and most of the troops were never tested.
Of those 1,500 samples, 1,000 were thrown out by Dr. Lawrence Odland because of the alarmingly high results. Dr. Odland decided that the extreme levels could not be accurate and were caused by plutonium loose in camp that contaminated the men’s hands, clothes, and everything else. Today Dr. Odland questions that decision; he states that “[w]e had no way of knowing what was from contamination and what was from inhalation.” Additionally Dr. Odland states that he quickly realized plutonium lodged in the lungs could not be detected in veterans’ urine.
Because Dr. Odland was convinced the urine samples were inaccurate indicators of exposure, he set up a permanent registry to monitor the troops exposed to the plutonium in 1966. However, he was not able to get support from the Department of Defense, and by 1968, the program was terminated.
The troops who were involved in the cleanup effort started to get sick soon after the cleanup ended. Joint pain, headaches, and weakness were all reported shortly thereafter. Doctors at the time stated that the men, in their 20s, were suffering from arthritis. Airmen ended up with skin rashes and growths. Of the 40 Airmen recently identified by the New York Times as exposed to the plutonium radiation at Palomares, 21 have been diagnosed with cancer and 9 had died from it.
Radiation is known to cause a number of disabilities, notably cancer. However, the military assured troops that the particular type of radiation, known as alpha particles, emitted by plutonium were safe. Alpha particles only travel a few inches and are unable to penetrate a person’s skin. Scientists have stated that outside a person’s body, they are relatively harmless.
The problem arises when particles are absorbed into an individual’s body. This most often happens via inhalation of dust, which the military and VA have consciously chosen to ignore. Troops who worked on cleanup were given no protection from inhalation of dust particles, and those who were provided anything were provided paper surgical masks. A report by the Defense Nuclear Agency later reported that these masks provided no protection, and were more a psychological barrier for the troops during clean up.
The New York Times article reported that it is impossible to connect individual cancers to a single exposure to radiation. While this may be true from a medical perspective, the article does not take into consideration the VA’s standard of proof for a claim of disability. The next article of this series will discuss how veterans can go about proving that their exposure to the radiation at Palomares caused their disabilities for purposes of VA disability claims. Please watch for the next installment.
Thank you for reading and for your service.