A British company has defended its plan to develop a resort in southeastern Spain after environmental groups claimed the area could be contaminated with radioactivity from nuclear bombs dropped after a plane crash in the years 1960.
On January 17, 1966, a United States Air Force B-52 collided mid-air with a supply plane over Palomares in Almería, killing seven of the 11 crew.
Of the four 1.5 megaton nuclear bombs carried by the B-52, three fell to Earth, two of which exploded as conventional bombs, spreading radioactive debris over a wide area, while the fourth landed in the sea. He was recovered 80 days later.
Shortly after the accident, the United States shipped 1,700 tons of contaminated soil to South Carolina, after which it was largely forgotten.
The British company Bahía de Almanzora plans to build 1,600 houses, a hotel and a sports complex about 1.5 km from the contaminated area of Palomares, fenced for 56 years. Almanzora’s proposal makes no mention of the 1966 incident or contamination.
José Ignacio Domínguez, a lawyer who leads the local group Ecologists in Action, said: “The plutonium is not only found in the fenced area, because it is carried by the wind and by animals like birds and rabbits. Domínguez said his group’s own tests revealed dangerously high levels of radiation outside the enclosed area.
Meritxell Bennasar of Greenpeace said: “A chain-link fence is not really a barrier. Some of the contamination is only a few centimeters deep. There are places where the US has secretly buried contaminated soil and we only find out where they are.
Bahía de Almanzora development manager Fraser Prynne said the contaminated land was “far from development” and that “this thing about flying particles is nonsense”.
“There’s no need to say it’s close to contaminated land,” he said. “There are probably 150 existing houses that are closer.”
The 1966 accident happened as Franco’s Spain was opening up to tourism and soon after, Manuel Fraga, the Minister of Tourism, and Angier Biddle Duke, the United States Ambassador, organized a photo shoot of them swimming in the sea at Palomares in an attempt to demonstrate that the waters were safe.
Fifty-six years later, 103 hectares (254 acres) remain fenced and neither the Spanish nor US governments have honored a mutual agreement signed in 2015 to clean up the area.
“We are as keen as anyone to see the area cleaned up,” Prynne said. “It’s American plutonium but there’s no nuclear graveyard in Spain and nobody else wants it.”
Palomares was not mentioned during US President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Madrid and when Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón, the US ambassador to Spain, was asked about the long-delayed cleanup in an interview this week in the newspaper. El País, she only said that “we are ready to listen to any proposal from the Spanish government”.
Apart from the radiation problem, environmentalists say the proposed development will destroy what is virtually the last stretch of pristine coastline in Almería.
“The only reason this part of the coast hasn’t been destroyed is because it’s radioactive,” Domínguez said.
Proponents, however, say the mayor and locals are supportive of the plan. “They’ve seen all the development along the coast and it’s disappointing not to see it happening in their area,” said Iain Alexander Moody on behalf of the Almanzora Group.