What is the Palomares Hydrogen Bomb Incident?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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The Palomares hydrogen bomb incident is a military accident that occurred on January 17, 1966. A United States bomber aircraft collided with a tanker aircraft during refueling about 6 miles (10 km) over the Mediterranean sea, just off the coast of Spain. This ignited the fuel compartment of the tanker, causing it to explode, killing all four crew members on board. The bomber broke up as well, killing three crew members. Four crew members survived and parachuted to safety. The explosion was so large it was witnessed by the crew of another bomber over a mile away.

The incident became known as the Palomares hydrogen bomb incident because the bomber was carrying four hydrogen bombs, all of which fell near the fishing village of Palomares. Conventional explosives in two of the bombs detonated, contaminating two square kilometers of Spanish soil with radioactive plutonium. Another bomb hit the ground without incident, and the last bomb fell into the Mediterranean sea, prompting a 2 1/2 month long search. Obviously, the United States military did not want the hydrogen bomb to fall into the wrong hands.


The Palomares hydrogen bomb incident obviously became an international fuss soon after it happened, and the United States government worked to clean up the area of contaminated soil, excavating 1,750 tons of soil and disposing it at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. To show local Spaniards and the international community that the area was free from contamination, Spanish tourism minister Manuel Fraga and US ambassador Angier Biddle Duke swam on the beach off Palomares, in full view of the international media.

But putting an end to the Palomares hydrogen bomb incident required finding the last hydrogen bomb, which was not so easy. Using initial data supplied by Francisco Simó Orts, a local fisherman who saw the bomb enter the water, a mathematical technique called Bayesian search was used to search the sea floor for the bomb. The famous deep-sea oceanographic vessel Alvin was used to search the area. After 2 1/2 months of continuous searching, the bomb was retrieved and brought back to the surface. A photograph of military officials in front of the recovered bomb was subsequently released, the first time that a nuclear weapon was seen in full view of the public.

The Palomares hydrogen bomb incident now goes down in history as one of the foremost anomalous incidents involving nuclear weapons. Another is the Vela incident, when a nuclear explosion of unknown source origin near the South Atlantic Bouvet Island.


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Post 5

After the Palomares incident occurred, the U.S. government started the clean up of polluted soil in the town of Palomares, Spain. Workers dug up tons of contaminated soil,and shipped it to a disposal plant in South Carolina.

It was the right thing to do - getting the soil out of Spain, but is there contamination left in South Carolina? I wonder how effective the de-contamination methods were back then.

Post 4

I just wonder why on earth the United States was carrying around hydrogen bombs in aircraft. I know it was the cold war with a serious Soviet threat, but I don't believe they should have been taking the risk.

Just think of the costs to human life and property could have occurred if the bombs had gone off. And who knows what kind of world-wide crisis could have been stirred up. It would have been much more than an unfortunate incident.

Post 3

@Charred - I am not sure what it takes to detonate hydrogen bombs. Maybe smashing them together in an accident like this is not enough and you may be overstating the possibility of a nuclear explosion. The article did say that the conventional bombs exploded; why the hydrogen bomb didn’t explode, I don’t know.

Nonetheless, if history is any guide, no disaster can usually interrupt the tide of human progress (or regress, if you think nuclear bombs are more bad than good).

Think Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the health impacts of Cold War nuclear testing, major oil spills in the Gulf, etc. Yet the industries behind these disasters still continued on, albeit with renewed emphasis on regulation and safety.

So I would have to guess that even in the worst case scenario, nuclear weapons programs would have continued, regardless of how you feel about them.

Post 2

@Charred - I completely agree with you. I believe that an H bomb catastrophe on the magnitude that you described would have done something else too.

It would have given more firepower, if you will, to the peace activists who have argued for years that the United States should unilaterally disarm all of its nuclear weapons.

I suppose our politicians would have resisted such calls, given that this happened during the Cold War, but still, the political pressure would have been immense.

I think that there would have been riots in the streets of our nation’s capital, and the anti war movement would have gained renewed momentum. This is especially true, I believe, given that during this time the United States was experiencing an escalation of the war in Vietnam.

Post 1

While this may have been a very embarrassing public relations nightmare, the obvious worry would have been the possibility of an atomic bomb actually exploding, not simply dropping into the ocean.

The nuclear blasts would have killed off massive numbers of people and the United States would not have recovered by simply doing a cleanup of the area, as they did in this case.

I further imagine that it would have impaired relations between the United States and Spain for many years to come. Let’s all be grateful that this worst case scenario did not take place.

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