To clean up Palomares, contaminated by nuclear material after the infamous B-52 crash in 1966, America and Spain have come to an agreement. The two countries confirmed the agreement is “in principle,” and it will involve a lot of planning to decontaminate the affected region whose inhabitants have been living in fear for almost half a century.
Officials from Washington and Spain announced they have jointly agreed to the cleanup of Palomares, a region that was contaminated by plutonium-based radiation in 1966 after a U.S air force plane collision mid-air, resulting in four nuclear bombs dropping. Though none of the bombs went off, two of them leaked a lot of weapons-grade plutonium in the region. The land has been contaminated but not uninhabited, and the United States government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to have the area monitored, reported Yahoo News.
The agreement reached is “in principle”, which means that the two sides have only agreed that the United States will be responsible for the cleanup.
The “Statement of Intent” signed by Foreign Minister José Manuel García Margallo and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reads, “The two sides intend to negotiate a binding agreement for a cooperative effort to conduct further remediation of the Palomares site and arrange for disposal of the contaminated soil at an appropriate site in the United States.”
What this essentially means is that America will undertake a thorough study of the region and decide the best course of action to rid Palomares of nuclear material that has been lying there, dormant but potentially threatening to the local flora, fauna, and the human population. Thereafter, an agency that America chooses will be responsible for excavating the nuclear material. The material will then be safely neutralized and stored in containers and brought back to the United States, where it will be put away for good, presumably in deep underground silos that are traditionally reserved to store radioactive waste.
The process will involve the removal of contaminated soil and the decontamination of the land. The joint press conference — held in Madrid, Margallo, to announce the initiation of the project — merely added that the process would begin soon. However, it did not divulge any more details regarding how long it is expected to take to rid the land of nuclear contamination.
For a long period of time, America has been paying $350,000 a year to monitor radioactivity levels. However, the agreement to pay an annual fee ended in 2010. Before the end of the accord, over a 1,000 locals in Palomares had to regularly undergo blood tests to check the level of contamination.
Incidentally, the agreement comes close to the 50-year anniversary of the crash, which is still considered as one of the most serious accidents involving active nuclear material, reported HNGN. The crash occurred on January 17, 1966. A U.S. B-52 bomber, one of the largest military warplanes back then, had been carrying four nuclear bombs with a yield of 1.5 megatons.
During a rather routine mid-air refueling operation 31,000 feet in the air, the bomber crashed into the tanker plane and sent four nuclear bombs hurtling towards the Spanish village of Palomares. Owing to safety mechanisms, none of the bombs exploded on impact. However, two of the bombs did break apart and leaked seven pounds of plutonium over a.76 square-mile area. A third bomb glided safely back to earth owing to parachutes, and a fourth landed five miles offshore and was later safely recovered by the USS Petrel without contaminating the region with nuclear material.
America has been monitoring the Palomares crash area for close to 50 years. It seems now it will finally remedy the situation.
[Image Credit | Mark Makela, Keystone-France / Getty Images]