In a belated effort to make amends for accidentally dropping hydrogen bombs in southern Spain - 50 years ago - the United States has agreed to clean up the contaminated soil resulting from the mess.
After years of negotiations over the best plan for the U.S. to clean up the area around the coastal village of Palomares, the deal was announced this week by Secretary of State John Kerry while on a visit to Spain.
The accident took place in 1966 when a United States bomber collided with a refueling tanker in mid air. The collision resulted in the bomber dropping four hydrogen bombs to the land below. Two of the bombs released plutonium into the earth’s atmosphere but no warheads detonated. The incident just barely averted an explosion that would have been more powerful than the atomic bombing of Japan at the conclusion of World War II.
At a news conference in Madrid, Kerry said “that the interests of Spain will be protected and the United States will live up to its responsibilities and do its part.” A statement of intent has been signed by both countries.
José Manuel García-Margallo, Spain’s foreign minister, said that both countries wanted the cleanup to take place as soon as possible.
Neither official estimated exactly how much soil contaminated by the plutonium would be returned to the United States, where it will be held in storage. Also left out by the officials was who would pay for the massive cleanup - a major issue that has held up an agreement until now.
After the accident happened in 1996, about 5,000 barrels of contaminated soil were shipped from Palomares to a storage facility in South Carolina. The United States also provided financial support to Spain at the time.
But, recently, radioactivity studies in the area determined that the initial soil clearance was apparently insufficient. The Spanish government then decided to cordon off the land near Palomares to ensure real estate projects would not be constructed in the area. The main concern by the government is that the lingering plutonium is possibly degenerating into other radioactive substances like americium, which have been known to emit traveling gamma rays that are hard to contain.
As part of the deal, Spain requires that any collected contaminated soil be returned to the United States as Spain does not have any appropriate storage facilities.
Back in 2011, Spain was adamant that cleaning Palomares was a priority for the government. The United States sent scientists to the region that year, but no deal was reached on how to deal with the situation. The U.S. was worried that any such agreement would set a precedent for other countries pursuing similar claims against the U.S.