At 9.22 in the morning of January 17, 1966, four thermonuclear bombs with a destructive power of 1.5 megatons each fell on an unknown district of Cuevas del Almanzora (Almería), after a B-52 of the army of The United States and a mother plane collide in an aerial refueling operation. The bombs, which were five feet long and weighed about 800 kilograms, did not behave uniformly when they fell. Two remained intact (one fell into the sea, the other cushioned the blow thanks to the parachute), while the remaining two detonated their conventional explosive, one next to the cemetery and the other in the center of town, releasing a radioactive aerosol into the atmosphere. wind scattered around. From that day on, Palomares was associated with plutonium.
Half a century of secrets and lies in Palomares
More than half a century later, the National Court has refused to order the Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) to clean up the 40 hectares of soil that was contaminated with nuclear material and that are under special radiological surveillance. In a ruling known this Thursday, and which includes two dissenting votes, it has rejected the appeal filed by Ecologistas en Acción, which in January 2017 brought to the magistrates a resolution of the CSN rejecting the closure of the contaminated area and the setting of a deadline for storing “the soil resulting from the treatment of the 50,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil.”
The magistrates reject the recourse of the ecologists because the CSN does not have the powers to execute the Rehabilitation Plan that the CSN itself presented to the Government, on a preliminary basis, in 2010. However, the National Court says that, if necessary, it could to pronounce on the lack of execution of that plan, which rests in a safe (it is still secret) pending an agreement with the United States that does not arrive.
This is the story of how poison fell on a town and for decades no one did anything to clean it up. Neither the United States, which carried out a mock cleaning, nor Spain: the Franco regime first de-dramatized the accident, and democracy ended up ignoring its consequences.
A dip to show that nothing was happening
Palomares has been associated with the image of a dip for half a century, that of Fraga on March 7, 1966. It is a powerful image because in a swimsuit it emphasized the main line of the authorities for a long time: “There is nothing to see here, circulate by favor”. In a way, in the collective imagination Palomares continues to be that, as shown by the recent series Palomares. Beach days and plutonium use it as a reference.
They were times of Spain is different, coined by Fraga himself. Nor was it convenient for the United States if it were reported that several nuclear bombs had fallen to the ground, of which it was always flying over the heads of Europeans, prepared in the event that the USSR launched a surprise attack.
Fraga’s bathroom set the tone for public action until today. Neither was the population evacuated or warned of the danger. Over time, it emerged that nine of the ten civil guards who participated in the cleanup died of cancer, according to declared the survivor to El Mundo in 2016. The New York Times revealed that also 21 of the 41 US soldiers who worked in the area developed the disease. Last year, army veterans got compensation: a court declared that what the commanders told them, that they had not been exposed to radiation, was a lie.
From the lie of the Franco regime to oblivion in democracy
The carelessness with which the dictatorship dispatched the matter was followed by years of darkness, until in the 1980s some researchers began to investigate. This is the case of José Herrera Plaza, then a Canal Sur journalist, who became interested in the matter in 1986. “There is a law of silence here, and if someone broke it they would eat it,” he explained in February 2020, in conversation with elDiario.es/Andalucía, after presenting his book in Palomares Silences and disloyalty (Editorial Laertes, 2020). He cited two exceptions: the Duchess of Medina Sidonia, imprisoned by the dictatorship for organizing a protest by neighbors in 1966, and Antonia Flores, a young PSOE mayoress, in 1985.
Meanwhile, the Americans collected the junk in their own way. According to documents from the Nuclear Safety Council, only 1,000 cubic meters of radioactive material were taken to Savannah River (South Carolina). The rest were buried, or left as it was. According to Ecologists in Action, there are at least 103 hectares with radioactive waste between 25 and 30 centimeters deep. They also built two 1,000 and 3,000 cubic meter pits to fill with radioactive soil. They did not even touch other lands, such as areas of the Sierra de Almagrera, where the wind carried radioactive particles. The United States called this work Operation Broken Arrow.
For decades, the inhabitants of Palomares cultivated radioactive land, drank water from rafts built on that land, herded their goats. Meanwhile, they were being monitored by the Nuclear Energy Board (the predecessor of CIEMAT) and the US Department of Energy through a radiological surveillance program.
Alarm and secret
Over time, it became known that the situation was always more serious than reported. In 2001, CIEMAT informed the Nuclear Safety Council that the “radiological inventory of the lands affected by the plane crash of January 17, 1966” is “significantly higher” than the estimate, according to the documents that elDiario.es has been able to consult. /Andalusia. Intensive agriculture and the nascent housing bubble pose a dilemma: There is a risk that moving the land will release more radiation. For this reason, between 2004 and 2007, CIEMAT expropriates some lands, but does not fence them until 2011.
In 2010, the Nuclear Safety Council approved a proposal for the Palomares Rehabilitation Plan. It is the key document. According to Ecologists in Action, it initially contemplated the cleaning of 50,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil, with the aim of reducing them to 6,000 and storing them in the United States. However, the US administration would have corrected the radiological criteria, so that the volume of land it would have to remove would be less.
For years, the Government has classified the document as “secret”, until, in February 2020, the National Court urged it to declassify it. However, at the same time they keep it restricted: it has not been incorporated into the electronic file to avoid its public dissemination.
On October 19, 2015, another half-step was taken: the governments of Spain and the United States. sign a declaration of intent. However, it is not binding: the parties “state their intention to cooperate” for the rehabilitation of the Palomares environment and indicate that “they plan to negotiate, as soon as possible, an agreement to determine the precise activities, functions and responsibilities of both. Participants to execute the project of rehabilitation and deposit “. That deal has yet to be negotiated.
The land returns to Palomares
In the last five years, not only has there been no progress in the execution of decontamination, but there is land that has been transferred back to the scene of the accident. In 2016, CIEMAT shipped 1.4 tons of radioactive soil in a container. “Palomares is their natural destination since they come from there, and due to its radiological characteristics it does not generate any problem or incompatibility with the Palomares lands,” CIEMAT sources explained to this medium. The transfer took place without previously informing the mayor of Cuevas del Almanzora, a municipality that has been calling for complete and comprehensive decontamination for decades.
Until in 2017, Ecologistas en Acción filed a lawsuit against the Nuclear Safety Council. It contains an account of the occult with which the authorities have handled the situation in Palomares for years, with almost criminal overtones. He says, for example, that two irrigation ponds were built in 1988, and that despite having a meter at 500 meters and that there were technicians in the area, CIEMAT did not warn the workers.
Four years later, and after several delays, the National Court has issued a ruling: the CSN cannot be ordered to decontaminate Palomares, because the CSN can only advise.