The Day We Lost The H-Bomb

Cold war, hot nukes, and the worst nuclear weapons disaster in history.

Palomares Bomb4
Navy personnel examine bomb #4. Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

On January 17, 1966, a B-52 exploded over Spain while being refueled by a KC-135 tanker, raining debris and a quartet of unarmed Mark 28 nuclear bombs on the coastal farming village of Palomares. Up until the moment the planes broke up, it was a routine U.S. Air Force mission, part of a program that kept nuclear-armed bombers within striking distance of Russia at all times, an effort to deter the Soviet Union from launching a preemptive strike.

Unable to keep the accident a secret, the military scrambled to locate the missing nukes. As it turns out, three of the four bombs came down on land, and two detonated their high explosives, making them—in effect—dirty bombs. The fourth landed in the Mediterranean Sea, where it remained for 80 days before it was located and retrieved.

In the new book “The Day We Lost the H-Bomb” (Ballantine), author Barbara Moran delivers the definitive account of this Cold War-era disaster, which took the lives of seven airmen. Earlier this month, Moran spoke with Failure about the accident, its aftermath, and the latest news from Palomares, where plutonium contamination remains a controversial issue.

Why don’t Americans remember the Palomares incident?
There are two answers, neither of which is totally satisfactory. First, it occurred in Spain and was over with relatively quickly. While it was happening it was front page news. But Americans have short attention spans, especially for things that happen overseas, and people soon moved on to the next thing.

The other issue is that in early 1966 the Vietnam War was heating up. It was a point in time when Americans were worrying less about war with Russia and more about Vietnam.

Why was the U.S. Air Force flying nuclear weapons over Spain?
Strategic Air Command (SAC) had a policy called airborne alert where they kept nuclear-armed B-52’s in the air at all times. The idea was if there was always a bomber in the air that would guard against a surprise attack. The U.S. had an agreement with Spain that allowed us to fly over Spanish territory, where we had air bases and refueling tankers.

How did the accident occur?
In order to make these long distance flights the Air Force had to keep B-52’s in the air for about 24 hours, which necessitated refueling them while airborne. A tanker would take off and get close to the B-52 and send out a tube that would pump fuel into the bomber.

On this particular day, they were refueling over Spain and either the planes collided or there was an explosion aboard the B-52. Some of the airmen in the bomber ejected and survived, but everyone in the tanker died and the bombs and debris fell over Spain and into the Mediterranean.

When the hydrogen bombs came down, why weren’t there nuclear explosions?
There were a number of safety devices in the bombs. But two of the bombs hit the ground at high speed [because their parachutes didn’t open] and so the high explosive detonated and spread plutonium dust over the Spanish countryside.

I understand that two of airmen who survived the plane crash endured another accident when the boat that rescued them crashed.
They were rescued by Spanish fishermen and the fisherman who was steering the boat was so nervous and agitated that he plowed into the dock. Then, after getting off the boat, survivor Mike Rooney got a ride to the infirmary. He recalls that the driver kept looking back at him to see if he was okay, which prompted him to implore the driver to keep his eyes on the road. He had already been in a plane crash and a boating accident and didn’t want to get into a car wreck too.

How did the locals react to the incident?
Miraculously, nobody was hurt. At first the villagers were mostly concerned about the airmen. Then it got a little weird because a lot of Americans came in wearing Hazmat suits and wouldn’t let the locals harvest their tomatoes.

Ultimately, the Americans compensated everyone for their crop loss and promised to put the town back the way it was. Most of the men I talked to when I was in Palomares reported that they had very good relations with the Americans. They were also happy to have work. A lot of townspeople were hired to clean up debris.

But in the ensuing years the Spanish government has been very secretive about how much radioactivity is in the village, and recently began buying tracts of land outside town and fencing it off. So the people are not angry at the Americans but they are upset at their own government for covering things up and not being open about the extent of the contamination.

How long did it take to locate the three bombs that came down on land?
They were found in about 24 hours.

How did they find #4, the bomb that landed in the water?
That was the hard part. They assumed that the fourth had fallen on land, but after a week or two they began to think that it might have come down in the Mediterranean, especially since they were finding a lot of debris in the water. The way they located it was through a fisherman named Simó Orts, who had seen a number of parachutes fall into the Mediterranean on the day of the accident. One of the parachutes was carrying what Orts thought was a dead man. But when he spoke with one of the engineers who designed the bomb parachutes, the engineer realized that what Orts had seen was the bomb.

After that they spent weeks looking for #4 in the water using two submersibles, Alvin and Aluminaut. After Alvin located it, getting it to the surface was another ordeal because the bomb weighed two tons. They hooked some lines to the parachute and tried to drag it up using a winch, but the line broke. Eighty days after it was lost they pulled it up using a torpedo recovery device.

What’s your best guess about the level of plutonium contamination at Palomares?
At the time of the accident that part of Spain was very rural and undeveloped but now it’s really built up. Most of the plutonium dust was blown into the nearby hills, and in the ensuing years they have constructed condos and a golf resort and the area has become a destination for European tourists. Meanwhile, the plutonium is not going anywhere. The U.S. packed up something like eight-thousand barrels of contaminated dirt and vegetation and took it to Savannah River [a nuclear processing center in Aiken, South Carolina], but a lot was left behind.

As far as I can tell, there has only been one epidemiological study done on the health of the people of Palomares versus a similar village, and it found no difference in cancer rates. But by putting a golf course and an amusement park in the vicinity of the most contaminated area they are treading on dangerous ground.

What impact did the accident have on the design of America’s nuclear weapons?
The explosive used in the Mark 28 detonated on impact. To prevent this type of accident from happening again they designed an insensitive explosive that would not detonate on impact.

What effect did Palomares have on America’s nuclear program?
The airborne alert program was cancelled two years later, not just because of Palomares but because of another accident near Thule Air Base in Greenland, where a bomber crashed and spread contamination. [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara had been trying to cancel the program for years. Then they had these two accidents and it was shut down soon afterwards.

How do the people of Palomares feel about the incident today?
Most of the townspeople don’t want any talk about it because the town is quite prosperous now. But it doesn’t go away, in part because development is encroaching on the most contaminated land. Some of the local politicians believe they may as well make lemonade out of lemons, and they are looking to build a theme park. There is also a Hollywood movie in the works—a romantic comedy [by Walt Disney Co.’s Miramax Films, tentatively titled Muchas Gracias, Bob Oppenheimer]—about an American serviceman who falls in love with a Spanish woman. Hopefully things will work out for the villagers, because they didn’t ask to have H-bombs dropped on their town.

Most people probably aren’t aware, but this wasn’t the only time the U.S. lost a nuclear bomb during the Cold War. There is one still missing off the coast of Georgia, for instance.
There are a bunch of them missing. And I’m sure there are some that aren’t public knowledge. The American military would have loved to keep Palomares a secret but there were just too many witnesses. And who knows how many the Soviets lost during the Cold War. There’s a lot of unexploded ordinance out there.

In spite of what happened at Palomares and Thule, one could argue that SAC had a pretty good safety record.  
SAC was the safest command in the Air Force. They were like a safety cult and known for being very uptight. But in spite of everything they did, accidents still happened. And some say that Palomares proved how safe SAC was because two planes collided and four H-bombs fell yet only a handful of people were killed. In that regard it was a success for the Air Force.