Back in the sixties, the allies had this idea that it would be a good thing to have a few bombers aloft in the skies, loaded for bear (Russian Bear, that is), in case Breshnev or Kennedy’s finger slipped on the fateful red button while playing with their respective girlfriends. I write this, but I’m not entirely sure about Leonid. I think he preferred drinking. Anyhow, a USAF B52 bomber was peacefully taking on fuel from a KC 135 flying tanker carrying 110,000 litres of the right stuff high in the skies over Vera on January 17th 1966 when something went terribly wrong – the two aircraft touched… and exploded. Debris rained down on the fields and coastline below, including four vacuum-packed and unarmed nuclear bombs.
The non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon hitting the ground, resulting (I discover from Wikipedia) in the contamination of a 2-square-kilometer area by radioactive plutonium.
The kafuffle as the remains of the aircraft, blobs of raw plutonium and the four bombs were quickly re-secured by the Americans is well known. Two of the bombs landed on the ground in Palomares (‘falling open and melting everything in their path’ according to unverifiable and probably rather unreliable reports) and the other two fell in the sea, where one was soon found rolling gently in the breakers while the forth was located in a deep trench off the coast several months later by Alvin, that cute little mini-sub that starred in the National Geographic magazines of the period. I remember reading about it at school and thinking that I wanted one. Another suggestion is that a wise old fisherman, who reputedly enjoyed a shot or two of Magno with his breakfast, may have helped in the search by circling the area in his row-boat with his head in a glass bottomed bucket scanning the sea-floor for large metal sausages (as the scientists kindly put it to him). He’s been known ever since as Antonio the Glow.
As far as the American Navy was concerned, he was certainly cheaper to fuel.
Franco was on board the Fifth Fleet destroyer for a brief visit to see how things were getting along while toying with a complimentary chocolate Easter bunny and complaining about the length of time needed to find a ruddy great steel bomb when, just at that very moment, a large and sinister looking object, rusted and covered in whelks, was fortuitously hauled aboard right in front of him.
A suggestion from the time was that the last bomb was in a very deep hole in the sea and was impossible to extract, so a cunningly designed plastic reproduction had been lowered off the other side of the ship to be triumphantly raised in the presence of the mad Caudillo to cheer him up.
This of course leads one to surmise that the fourth bomb is still out there somewhere, rolling slowly about as the current plays with it in its dark and forgotten trench: which in turn accounts for the fish with two heads I had for lunch yesterday.
Fraga Irribarne the Minister of Tourism, perhaps unaware of this sleight of hand, famously took a dip in the sea with the American ambassador at the time to show there was no radiation. Come to think of it, perhaps they did smell a small rat, as, in point of fact, they carefully enjoyed their frolic in front of the Mojácar Parador, some ten kilometres down the coast.
The Marines, for want of anything better to do, removed 20,000 tons of topsoil, fertile and safe, and took it to South Carolina where they spread it on the fields, because, you see, there was no radiation.
It's now used to grow terbacca.
A small desalination plant was built in Palomares by the Americans for thirty million dollars as a kind gesture (it was quickly closed down after the resident engineer moved to Mojácar to open the El Patio beach bar and, seeing that he wasn't coming back, the Catalan caretaker sold the guts of the building for scrap). A few rusting Geiger counters were left to record the ambient radiation level – if only there only would have been any, which of course there isn’t – and new construction extending from Vera Playa into Palomares was given the go-ahead by forward thinking (and impartial) town-planners.
Now, after forty some years, along comes ‘the bombshell’. A recent test on Palomares snails (please pay attention here if you count pond-life in your carefully balanced diet) has shown a higher than normal level of radiation. That luminous slime they leave as they melt their way over the rocks is, apparently, smokin’.
The American Department of Energy, together with the CIEMAT Spanish atomic agency, has now bought ten hectares of the land which had been previously cleared by speculators ready for some building, although one can only wonder quietly about the dust already raised and blown to the heavens by the tractors and diggers.
The site is now being examined by a team of experts armed with exotic scientific instruments together with a bucket and a kitchen sieve which they bought from Lopez. Rumours are that they have failed so far to find the presence of any dangerous radiation particles, but they have confirmed the discovery of the marble floors from two Roman villas, the still-faintly luminescent remains of Antonio’s row-boat and part of the foundations of what appears to have been a small Phoenician shoe-shop which the Junta de Andalucía has since described disparagingly as ‘probably illegal’.
Local ecologists have reacted to the news by saying that a much larger area needs to be sanitized.
The half-life of plutonium is a lot longer than ours.
For the meantime, don’t eat the snails.