Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A little more lost plutonium gets accounted for

After the “unacceptable mistake” of having unintentionally flown six-nuclear tipped weapons across the country, and the mix-up that resulted in nuclear missile fuses, rather than helicopter batteries, being sent to in Taiwan, bad news about nuclear weapon mistakes may come in threes:

Most recently, a story from the Spanish newspaper El País (a summary of which appeared on the website http://www.typicallyspanish.com/) reported last week that Teresa Mendizábal, the Director of the Environment Department of the Energy, Environment, and Technology Research Centre, CIEMAT (part of the Ministry of Education), stated that 1,000 square meters of radioactively contaminated material, containing plutonium and americium, have been found near Palomares, Spain.

The contaminated material has been discovered 42 years after the Palomares accident where four U.S. hydrogen bombs fell over the village of Palomares (in the Almeria region in Southeastern Spain) following a 1966 mid-air collision between a U.S. B-52G bomber and tanker aircraft during in-flight refueling (which killed all crew members). Three nuclear weapons were recovered in Palomares and a fourth was recovered from the Mediterranean Sea. While the nuclear weapons did not detonate, two of them contaminated part of the area (releasing more than 20 kg of plutonium according to a PressTV article). In 1966, the US military airlifted contaminated soil from the site of the crash. Cietmat has been conducting monitoring studies of the area for over 40 years, because of concerns about the above-ground and wind-blown soil, and started decontamination in 2004. Now underground contamination from buried soil has been found as well. The article reports that the US military stated at the time of the accident that it air-lifted all the plutonium-contaminated soil (1.6 million tons), but hid the fact that it had buried some remaining soil in two ditches in 1966.

The article notes that until 2004, lettuce was being grown above the buried waste, and there were plans to develop the area. The article indicates that a formal agreement on clean up of the contamination at Palomares (the extent of which was yet unknown) was reached with the United States in 2006, when the United States provided $2 million for the soil studies. The article notes that it is expected that the United States will remove the contaminated underground soil (further negotiations are expected in June with the US Department of Energy when a US delegation will travel to Spain), as Spain has argued that it cannot store plutonium.

The legacy of this incident underscores the unintended dangers necessarily associated with nuclear weapons operations.