Cold War atomic bombs haunt Spanish village

While nuclear safety became an issue with the Fukushima accident, we travelled to Palomares, a village in Southern Spain, to find out what it is like to live with radioactive contamination. Palomares was an unlucky victim of the Cold War in 1966. The village suffered significant plutonium contamination. A US B-52 bomber, carrying four hydrogen bombs, crashed during an airborne refueling operation above the village. The warheads did not detonate but they released radioactive plutonium. The accident troubles the diplomatic relations between the US and Spain as Spain claims the clean-up was never done properly. What we learnt 45 years later was that today it is not only about health, safety and salad farming - there were also profitable plans for holiday homes at stake.
Many in the village would rather forget the mess where they found themselves pulled into. The bomber was part of the US Operation Chrome Dome, keeping nuclear arsenal constantly in the air in the Mediterranean and Northern polar regions. Each bomb was designed to be 75 times more powerful than the one of Hiroshima. Some legendary moments of Spanish press history were immortalized when Manuel Fraga, Francisco Franco’s propaganda minister, and the US ambassador Angier Biddle Duke, tried to clear the clouds over holiday tourism. In an unforgettable photo call, the tandem dived into the wintry Mediterranean sea, near the site where two of the bombs plummeted.

Published in Helsingin Sanomat in 2011.

photos by ap & stefano buonamici