A British company has defended its plans to develop a resort in south-east Spain after environmental groups claimed the area could be contaminated with radioactivity from nuclear bombs that fell after a plane crash in the 1960s.
On 17 January 1966 a US air force B-52 collided mid-air with a refuelling plane over Palomares in Almería, killing seven of the 11 crew.
Of the four 1.5 megatonne nuclear bombs the B-52 was carrying, three fell to Earth, of which two exploded as conventional bombs, spreading radioactive debris over a wide area, while the fourth landed in the sea. It was recovered 80 days later.
Shortly after the accident, the US shipped 1,700 tonnes of contaminated earth to South Carolina, after which it was largely forgotten.
British-based Bahía de Almanzora plans to build 1,600 homes, a hotel and a sports complex about a mile (1.5km) from the contaminated zone in Palomares, which has been fenced off for the past 56 years. The Almanzora proposal makes no mention of the 1966 incident or the contamination.
José Ignacio Domínguez, a lawyer who heads the local Ecologists in Action group, said: “The plutonium isn’t just in the fenced-off area because it’s carried on the wind and by animals such as birds and rabbits.” Domínguez said his group’s own tests have revealed dangerously high levels of radiation outside the closed zone.
Meritxell Bennasar from Greenpeace said: “A chain-link fence isn’t much of a barrier. Some of the contamination is only a few centimetres deep. There are places where the United States secretly buried contaminated soil and we’re only just finding out where they are.”
Fraser Prynne, development director for Bahía de Almanzora, said the contaminated land was “nowhere near the development” and that “this stuff about particles flying about 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 Francoist Spain was opening up to tourism and shortly afterwards Manuel Fraga, the tourism minister, and Angier Biddle Duke, the US ambassador, staged a photo-op of them swimming in the sea at Palomares in an attempt to demonstrate that the waters were safe.
Fifty-six years later, 103 hectares (254,000 acres) remain fenced off and neither the Spanish nor US governments have complied with a mutual agreement signed in 2015 to clean up the zone.
“We’re as keen as anyone to see the area cleaned up,” Prynne said. “It’s American plutonium but there’s no nuclear cemetery in Spain and no one else wants it.”
Palomares was not mentioned during the recent visit to Madrid by the US president, Joe Biden, and when Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón, the US ambassador to Spain, was asked about the long-delayed clean-up in an interview this week in El País newspaper, she said only that “we are prepared to listen to any proposal from the Spanish government”.
Aside from the radiation issue, environmentalists say the proposed development will destroy what is virtually the last stretch of virgin coast in Almería.
“The only reason this part of the coast hasn’t been destroyed is because it’s radioactive,” said Domínguez.
The developers however say the mayor and the local population are in favour of the plan. “They’ve seen all the development along the coast and it’s been disappointing not to see it happening in their area,” Iain Anderson Moody said on behalf of the Almanzora group.
July 14, 2022 at 10:21AM Stephen Burgen in Barcelona