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Spain renews call for US to remove soil from nuclear accident site

Contaminated earth in Almería is result of 1966 air crash involving a B-52 loaded with hydrogen bombs

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid,, 6 Mar 23

Nearly 60 years after a midair collision dumped four US hydrogen bombs in south-eastern Spain, strewing radioactive plutonium across the landscape, Spanish officials have renewed efforts to have Washington cart off tens of thousands of cubic metres of contaminated soil to the US for storage.

A source at Spain’s ministry of foreign affairs confirmed on Monday that it had formally requested the US takes action to remove the radioactive earth. The request is in line with a non-binding agreement struck between the two countries in 2015 and which included a US commitment to “arrange for disposal of the contaminated earth at an appropriate site in the United States”.

As the US had yet to formally respond, the source declined to offer further details. El País, the Spanish newspaper that first reported the story, said the request had been lodged a few months ago. The US government did not respond to a request for comment.

The demand is the latest chapter in a saga that traces back to January 1966 when a US B-52 bomber loaded with nuclear weapons collided with a tanker plane during a midair refuelling operation off the coast of Almeria, Spain. Seven of the two planes’ 11 crew members were killed.

Four hydrogen bombs tumbled from the B-52; one was later recovered intact in the Mediterranean while the other three crashed on land near the coastal village of Palomares.

While the bombs did not explode, two of the plutonium-filled detonators went off, scattering 7lb of radioactive plutonium-239 across the landscape.

The US sent about 1,600 servicemen to the crash site to recover the weapons and clean up the contamination. About 1,400 tonnes of contaminated soil was shipped to a facility in South Carolina.

Both countries were eager to downplay the collision, which took place during the height of the cold war and as Spain was in the grip of the Franco dictatorship.

Amid fears that the risk of radioactive contamination would harm the country’s budding tourism industry, Spain’s then tourism minister and the US ambassador took a widely publicised swim in the sea off the coast of Palomares in the weeks after the incident.

Concerns over the lingering impacts of the collision catapulted back into the spotlight in 2007, after a study suggested up to 50,000 sq metres of land remained contaminated. The affected area was fenced off and barred from being used for agriculture or development.

In 2015 Madrid and Washington signed off on an agreement to negotiate a binding deal for the site’s remediation. “We have to build on today’s signing to take further action to resolve – once and for all – this very important issue,” the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, said during a joint press conference with the Spanish foreign minister at the time, José Manuel García-Margallo.

Little was done to implement the agreement, however, as elections ushered in changes in Spain and the US. The Spanish government’s recent decision to take up the issue again with the US was prompted by the assessment that bilateral relations were “at their best in years,” sources told El País, leaving Madrid hopeful that some progress could be made before Spain heads to the polls for general elections at the end of the year.

March 7, 2023 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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