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A Nuclear Needle in a Haystack: The Cold War’s Missing Atom Bombs

http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,590513,00.html
In a 1968 plane crash, the US military lost an atom bomb in Greenland’s Arctic ice. But this was no isolated case. Up to 50 nuclear warheads are believed to have gone missing during the Cold War, and not all of them are in unpopulated areas. It was a little early to be swimming in the Mediterranean that year. But in early March 1966, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, the Spanish information minister at the time, and Biddle Duke, the American ambassador in Madrid, together with their respective families, plunged into the chilly waters off the Costa Cálida. Journalists from around the world had gathered on the beach of the small village of Palomares to report on the two families’ spring bathing outing. Their interest would have been surprising, if it hadn’t been for the hydrogen bomb lying on the ocean floor only a few kilometers away, a bomb with more than 1,000 times the explosive force of the one that flattened Hiroshima. Only a few weeks earlier, on Jan. 17, 1966, the worst nuclear weapons incident of the entire Cold War had taken place off Spain’s southeastern coast. During an aerial tanking maneuver, an American B-52 bomber and a KC-135 tanking aircraft collided in mid-air at 9,000 meters (29,000 feet), and both planes exploded in a giant fireball over Palomares. There were four hydrogen bombs in the hold of the B-52. One landed, unharmed, in tomato fields near the village. The non-nuclear fuse detonated in two others causing bomb fragments and plutonium dust to rain down on the impact site. The fourth bomb fell into the water somewhere off the coast, burying itself in several meters of silt. But where exactly did it fall? In the weeks after the accident, Palomares looked like the set for a film about the apocalypse. On land, men wearing white protective suits and blue facemasks used Geiger counters to scan the ground for radiation. The fields were sealed off, and an entire harvest of tomatoes and beans rotted on the vine. The US government had the fields dug up and 1,400 tons of earth removed. The contaminated soil was then shipped to the United States for disposal. Dozens of American warships patrolled the coastline to seal off the area where a fisherman had seen the bomb landing in the water. It took 81 days to recover the nuclear weapon from a depth of 800 meters (2,600 feet). Expressing its shock over the events in Spain, the German daily Hamburger Abendblatt wrote: “More than any sandbox scenario, the bomb incident makes it clear what it means today to be ‘living with the bomb’.”

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February 27, 2009 - Posted by | Nuclear Weapons

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