13 May 2009

Lessons from the Palomares nuclear accident

Barbara Moran

Barbara Moran

Barbara Moran is an award-winning science journalist who has written for many publications, including New Scientist, Invention & Technology, Technology Review and...


Editor's note: The following article is drawn from an article in the Bulletin's May/June 2009 edition. That analysis can be found here.

On January 17, 1966, an American B-52 bomber collided with a tanker plane during a routine mid-air refueling over Spain. Both planes exploded, killing seven airmen and launching four hydrogen bombs into the sky. Three bombs landed around the small farming village of Palomares, spreading plutonium for miles. They were quickly recovered. The fourth landed in the Mediterranean Sea, and it took the largest salvage effort in U.S. naval history to find it. The broken arrow at Palomares, the story of which is told in my new book, The Day We Lost the H-bomb, is regarded as the worst nuclear weapons accident in history, though the incident represents something even bigger.

The Palomares episode is not merely a footnote to history, it is a window into the mind-set of the Cold War. Most people do not know that in the 1960s the United States maintained airborne alerts that kept nuclear-armed bombers in the air at all times in case of a Soviet surprise attack. (It was two of these planes that exploded over Palomares.) Some observers criticized the airborne alert program at the time, yet the American public generally accepted it as necessary to keep the Soviets at bay. The fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union was so great that it made risky programs like this seem both necessary and acceptable.

Indeed, nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, many still argue that it was programs such as the airborne alert that kept the Soviets in check; that nuclear deterrence worked. This is debatable, but we know now that Soviet nuclear strength was far less than what the public was led to believe. And the fact remains that more people died from nuclear accidents during the Cold War than were ever killed by a Soviet nuclear attack.

Today, the threat of nuclear accidents looms as large as ever. Despite the general focus on "rogue" nations' nuclear ambitions, the most recent nuclear mishaps have all involved the nuclear arsenals of the major powers. In 2007, for instance, six U.S. cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were mistakenly loaded on a B-52 at Minot Air Force Base and transported to Barksdale Air Force Base. The missiles were not reported missing for 36 hours and remained mounted to the aircraft during that time, unprotected by the security precautions typically required for such weapons. In February 2009, a French submarine collided with a British submarine while they were on patrol in the Atlantic Ocean. Both subs carried nuclear missiles.

While these incidents ended safely, they, like Palomares, raise the question: How much risk are nuclear weapons worth? Most Americans, as much as they think about nuclear weapons at all, continue to make peace with them, or at least accept them as a necessary evil. This uncomfortable peace exists only because Americans believe that their government has control over the weapons. The United States, the thinking goes, would launch nuclear weapons only to respond to an attack or to offer a controlled display of American strength. This is why Palomares and the more recent accidents prove so disconcerting and worthy of reexamination. In Spain, the United States not only lost control of four hydrogen bombs, it actually lost one of them. Palomares was "a nightmare of the nuclear age," as one writer said, not because of what happened, but because it opened people's minds to what could have happened. The same could be said about the most recent incidents.

Looking back upon the Palomares accident today, it is astonishing that such an event was even possible—astonishing in the same way that the public marvels at the firebombing of Tokyo, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and, yes, the use of torture during the Bush administration's war on terror. Yet all of these events, born of fear, were widely accepted and even applauded as they happened.

War doesn't innately change morality; it simply increases the willingness of individuals to bend moral standards to their purposes. Thoughtful military men and women grapple with this issue daily, but it takes an accident such as that the one that occurred over Palomares to shake the general public into awareness. As we move forward in this uncertain age, it is important to consider how our choices today may be viewed by generations to come.