On 17 January 1966, a B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs collided with a KC-135 tanker plane during mid-air refueling off the coast of Almería, Spain, killing seven of the eleven crew members. Two of the bombs were recovered intact from the sea, but the other two leaked radiation into the surrounding countryside when their plutonium-filled detonators went off, strewing 3kg of radioactive plutonium 239 around the town of Palomares.
Following the accident, the U.S. military shipped 1,700 tons of contaminated soil to South Carolina, and the whole thing was forgotten.
To show that the U.S. clean-up resolved all health concerns, the Spanish minister of tourism, Manuel Fraga, accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to Spain, took a televised swim in the sea.
In the early 1990s, however, health concerns were reawakened when tests revealed high levels of americium, an isotope of plutonium, and further tests showed that 50,000 cubic meters of soil were still contaminated. The Spanish government appropriated the land in 2003 to prevent any commercial use of it.
The Financial Times reports that on Monday in Madrid, Secretary of State John Kerry and the Spanish foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo, signed an agreement to clean up the site and “store the contaminated earth at a suitable location in the United States.”
The radioactive material will likely be shipped to an area of Nevada which is already contaminated from numerous nuclear tests carried out in the 1950s.
Margallo said the process would begin soon but gave no details.
The FT notes that analysts see a relationship between the clean-up announcement and the agreement by Spain to allow the United States to increase the number of U.S. military personnel in the country. The number of Marines at the base in Morón in southern Spain is to be increased from 850 to 2,200, and to 3,000 in the event of a crisis.
The U.S. navy base at Rota, near Cádiz, is set to become the largest in the Mediterranean.
The analyst note that what has accelerated the pace of negotiations on both the clean-up and the increase military presence in the fear in Washington that the December election may see the rise to power of a left-leaning government less sympathetic to U.S. concerns.