On January 17, 1966, two American bombers with nuclear weapons on board collided over the city of Palomares. The disaster led to the death of seven people and the fall of four hydrogen bombs on the southeastern coast of Spain. And although the explosion did not occur, the detonators of two bombs went off, which led to the contamination of the soil with radioactive plutonium-239. Hundreds of US soldiers arrived in the province of Almeria to eliminate the accident, but Operation Broken Arrow (“Broken Arrow”) can hardly be called successful – after 57 years, the land in Palomares is still radioactive, and Spain again appeals to the United States with a request to remove dozens of thousand cubic meters of contaminated soil (in total we are talking about 50,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil). The fact that the level of radiation in the region is still high became known in 2007. At the same time, the Spanish government restricted access to the affected area, prohibiting the use of land for agricultural activities and development. But how did it happen that the liquidation of a nuclear catastrophe lasts more than half a century? Let’s figure it out!
Hydrogen bombs in Palomares
From 1936 to 1975, Spain was ruled by the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco. After a bomber collision in 1966, the Spanish state (Estado Español) and the US tried to downplay the incident. So, just two months after the disaster, the Spanish authorities staged a mass bathing on the beach of Manuel Fraga, and then, together with the US government, distributed certificates and compensations to the residents of Palomares and Villaricos (another affected province).
Note that the US position on the incident was justified by the height of the Cold War, and Francoist Spain feared damage to the nascent tourism industry (however, nothing new). About 1,600 US military personnel were sent to the crash site to clean up the accident, removing about 1,400 tons of contaminated soil, sending them to a facility in South Carolina for storage.
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Subsequently, the Spanish government published documents according to which affected areas are completely decontaminated, local residents received about 900 certificates, and the US military took away 4,810 canisters (242 liters each) filled with earth and radioactive waste. However, the high level of radiation in the region, recorded in 2007, proved that Operation Broken Arrow did not cope with the task – radioactive debris buried in ditches contaminated at least 40 hectares.
The most dangerous weapon on earth
Everyone knows today that nuclear weapons can destroy civilization. To this end, the participants in the Manhattan Project (US project to create an atomic bomb) advocated nuclear disarmament, which was reported in 1947 on the pages of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists journal of the University of Chicago. To explain to the general public the need to abandon nuclear weapons, scientists used the metaphorical Doomsday Clock, which symbolizes a nuclear catastrophe at midnight.
Подробнее о том, что такое Часы судного дня и кто принимает решение о переводе стрелки мы рассказывали здесь, не пропустите!
Alas, it was possible to realize the consequences of the use of atomic weapons only after the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the collision of US bombers over Spain in 1966 and the largest accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the spring of 1986. Experts are still eliminating the consequences of the world’s largest catastrophe. Recall that during the liquidation of the accident, tens of thousands of people died, but the most terrible consequence was the effect of exposure.
Recall that in nature there are radionuclides elements that emit radiation. Their impact infects all surrounding objects. Thus, irradiation of cells of living organisms deprives them of their ability to recover and can cause death and mutations in DNA, which leads to the development of cancer. After the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Europe, at least 10 thousand cases of thyroid cancer were recorded (and according to forecasts, at least 50,000 more cases are expected).
The worst, however, is due to the high doses of radiation received through contact with contaminated materials. Depending on the type of damaging radiation, symptoms of radiation sickness can include nausea, weight loss, body aches, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. In acute cases, patients whole groups of cells begin to dieleading to organ failure and subsequent death.
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What is radioactive waste?
Danger to life and health is also represented by radioactive waste (RW, radioactive waste) – nuclear materials and radioactive substances, the further use of which is not provided. As a rule, radioactive waste is stored in special burial places – the so-called burial grounds, which reliably isolate them from contact with the environment.
As stated on the NO RAO website, the most dangerous radionuclides are contained in spent nuclear fuel (SNF): fuel elements and assemblies in which they are placed radiate even more than fresh nuclear fuel and continue to release heat.
At the same time, more than 95% of radioactive waste is a valuable resource (containing uranium-235 and 238, plutonium and other isotopes used in medicine and scientific activities) and is extracted at specialized enterprises. Note that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) divides radioactive waste into several categories (solid and liquid, low-level and high-level). Each category has its own eligibility requirements.
Low activity isotopes such as cesium-137 and strontium-190 (with a half-life of about 30 years), which are found in the waste from conventional nuclear power plants. And although the level of health risk from low-level waste is not as high as a result of a bomb explosion or a nuclear reactor at a nuclear power plant, inexperienced terrorists willing to accept exposure and death could use nuclear waste to poison large cities.
Двадцать периодов полураспада эквивалентны 600 годам – времени, в течение которого отходы представляют опасность, – отмечают специалисты.
But back to plutonium-239, an extremely toxic isotope with a half-life of 24,000 years (!). The discovery of the isotope by physicists at the University of California took place in 1941, during the bombardment of a target of pure uranium-238 with neutrons accelerated to high energies. This unstable isotope appeared during the decay of neptunium-239, and for its discovery in 1951 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded.
In 1942, scientists managed to obtain a pure compound of plutonium. Later it became known that this isotope exists in nature – it was found in uranium ores (in particular, in ores, deposits in the Congo). Today, plutonium is actively used in the nuclear industry as a fuel for powering nuclear reactors (in fact, it is part of the MOX fuel – a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxide) and for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
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Since plutonium emits alpha particles, it is most dangerous when inhaled and settles in lung tissue, leading to lung scarring and cancer. From the lungs, the isotope can enter the bloodstream and then the kidneys. circulating through the body, plutonium-239 is concentrated in the bones, liver and spleenexposing organs to alpha particles.
Radioactive beach in Spain
The Spanish El Pais reports that at least 40 hectares of land in Palomares are contaminated with plutonium-239. The publication notes that the problem is not in cleaning up the territory, but in where the contaminated land ends up. The liquidation plan, developed in 2010, included the compaction and filtration of 6,000 cubic meters, as well as the search for a repository, since there is no place to store radioactive waste in Spain.
In 2015, Spain and the US agreed (without any legal obligation) that Spain would take over the cleanup and the US would pick up the radioactive waste. However, the agreement was never worked out, and Palomares remains the Spanish “exclusion zone”. For this reason, the Spanish Foreign Ministry turned to the United States with an official request to resolve the situation, but the American authorities have not yet provided an official response.
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The media also note that political instability is not the only reason for such a long nuclear saga: in total, the operation will take from 12 to 24 months, and its cost is estimated at 640 million euros.
As Presidential Administration Minister Felix Bolanos said in August 2022, the executive branch is “working in the economic and diplomatic spheres to find a solution” to the Palomares problem.
We also note that there are many territories on Earth that are unsafe for life due to radiation. Among them are the Marshall Islands, the Hanford complex in the US and Fukushima in Japan. We talked about each of these places in more detail in this article, we recommend reading it.