Was the world ending or was everything fine? I just had to make a call.
July 10, 2016 7:27 AM   Subscribe

It was a late winter night in 1966 and a fully loaded B-52 bomber on a Cold War nuclear patrol had collided with a refueling jet high over the Spanish coast, freeing four hydrogen bombs that went tumbling toward a farming village called Palomares, a patchwork of small fields and tile-roofed white houses in an out-of-the-way corner of Spain’s rugged southern coast that had changed little since Roman times. Part one: Decades Later, Sickness Among Airmen After a Hydrogen Bomb Accident [NYT] Part two: Even Without Detonation, 4 Hydrogen Bombs From ’66 Scar Spanish Village [NYT]
posted by skycrashesdown (50 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
The number of times we nearly destroyed the world just through stupidity or error during the Cold War continues to amaze me. That two major governments—at least one of them democratically elected and at least ostensibly representative of its people—were ale to talk themselves into such an obviously insane position really undermines my faith in the concept of government in general. Madness.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:49 AM on July 10, 2016 [10 favorites]


but that was the old Cold War. The New Cold War will be handled much more competently.
posted by Auden at 8:05 AM on July 10, 2016 [9 favorites]


Eponysterical.
posted by acb at 8:06 AM on July 10, 2016 [17 favorites]


"The other two hit hard and exploded, leaving house-size craters on either side of the village, according to a secret Atomic Energy Commission report that has since been declassified. Built-in safeguards prevented nuclear detonations, but explosives surrounding the radioactive cores blasted a fine dust of plutonium over a patchwork of houses and fields full of ripe, red tomatoes."
posted by mwhybark at 8:17 AM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


The article goes on to cite an estimate of the amount of plutonium released at the crash site as about seven pounds. For reference, the reactor leaks at Fukushima Daiichi are estimated to have released approximately 580mg of plutonium.
posted by mwhybark at 8:23 AM on July 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


The US had nothing on the UK when it came to dicing with nuclear disaster. Have a look at Violet Club, a megaton-class fission device created as a stopgap while we got the hydrogen bomb going.

One of its delightful attributes was that the fissile core was larger than critical mass. Skip down to the 'Design Features' bit, where you can learn how it was armed on the runway by draining hundreds of thousands of steel ball bearings by removing a plastic bung - and the many joyful consequences of this approach.
posted by Devonian at 8:31 AM on July 10, 2016 [16 favorites]


They crashed a B52 on the Navajo Nation some time ago. I asked the person if they cleaned up, took it away, he said no.
posted by Oyéah at 8:33 AM on July 10, 2016


And meanwhile, the picture the accident was remembered for in Spain was of the then Francoist minister of Information and Tourism Manuel Fraga Iribarne taking a bath with the American ambassador to demonstrate that everything was perfectly safe. Erm.
posted by sukeban at 8:33 AM on July 10, 2016


Omg! Which one did they crash? Was it Kate? Or Cindy? Hopefully not Fred...
posted by sexyrobot at 8:41 AM on July 10, 2016 [4 favorites]


The madness of this particular situation wasn't lost on filmmakers of the day as this movie illustrates.
posted by Zedcaster at 8:41 AM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Note that while the regime's propaganda worked and nowadays nobody thinks there's dangerous radioactivity in Palomares, the nuclear incident that alarmed the public was the fire at the Vandellós power plant in 1989, with Chernobyl just three years before. Of course, we were a democracy instead of a dictatorship by then so the media treatment was very different. The accidents at Vandellós (1989 and 2004) and later on Ascó in 2007 have made the public rather contrary to nuclear power.
posted by sukeban at 8:49 AM on July 10, 2016


Every thread about this topic needs a link to Eric Schlosser's book Command and Control.

The Palomares incident is in there, and it might not even be in the top 3 craziest things in the book.
posted by chimaera at 8:58 AM on July 10, 2016 [22 favorites]


Thanks for checking - there are sufficient terrifying incidents in the book that I could not remember if this was one or not.
posted by Artw at 9:26 AM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Not to trivialize the event but wanted to mention the dark comedy film made that based on the incident:

The Day the Fish Came Out

Stars a very young Candice Bergen. Here she is in an original lobby card.

[Crap. Duplicate. But the lobby card is new.]
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 9:33 AM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Wow, Violet Club really is quite extraordinarily terrible even by the standards of badly designed nuclear weapons.
posted by Artw at 9:36 AM on July 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


The Palomares incident is in there, and it might not even be in the top 3 craziest things in the book.

Yeah the one where one bomb was 3/4 way to arming itself after a B-52 crash near Goldsboro, NC and another disintegrated on impact such that one part of the bomb buried itself 100+ ft down in mud and was never recovered probably tops this. (I can't recall offhand whether it was the primary or secondary; probably the secondary since it would require the primary to detonate)
posted by indubitable at 9:45 AM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Command and Control is excellent; I just finished reading it about a week ago.

It blows my mind that they had 'air alerts' where bombers would be in flight with nuclear weapons 24 hours a day. Given the base crash rate of B-52 bombers, this was basically asking for a nuclear disaster.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:12 AM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Of course, now the Cold War is hotting up again we're going to have plenty of opportunities to relive those happy days.
posted by Artw at 10:20 AM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Cable: 09STATE129362_a

----------------------
PALOMARES Nuclear Site
----------------------

12. (C) Moratinos asked [Secretary Clinton] for &a real
response(whatever you can do8 to be helpful in terms of
Spanish public opinion, which he feared could turn against
the U.S. if news of the results of a recent study of the
site,s nuclear contamination were to spread. The Secretary
noted that she remembered the accident when it happened but
made no commitment.

posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:24 AM on July 10, 2016


“Pretty soon, we’ll all be dead and they will have succeeded at covering this whole thing up.”

I don't know if I can handle being this angry.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:41 AM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I mean, every time I think I've reached Peak Anger, I get another reminder of how much more there is to be angry about.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:42 AM on July 10, 2016 [7 favorites]


The article goes on to cite an estimate of the amount of plutonium released at the crash site as about seven pounds. For reference, the reactor leaks at Fukushima Daiichi are estimated to have released approximately 580mg of plutonium.

Trying to come up with a way in which this is not misleading. Fukushima contained almost all the Plutonium, but released a butt-load of other bad stuff, including orders of magnitude more cesium-137. Chernobyl released over 100 pounds of Plutonium (among other radioisotopes).

Not saying seven pounds is awesome... For actual reference, the LD50 for an average sized human is estimated to be around 22mg (injected, not ingested, but still). Now go play outside.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 11:09 AM on July 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


what? how on earth is a straightforward statement of fact misleading?
posted by mwhybark at 11:10 AM on July 10, 2016


To paraphrase Frowner - and it really could be the late 20th century's epitaph -

When the cold war was over, the Soviets lost. But we lost also.
posted by lalochezia at 11:18 AM on July 10, 2016


Have a look at Violet Club

Wow. The awesomely unstable design meant that it would go critical if nudged. Any crushing of the bomb casing (e.g. "a traffic collision on the airfield") would cause a megaton detonation. Needless to say, the sudden unexplained obliteration of a British airbase could have triggered WWIII. Also, any plane taking off with an armed bomb would have to go to its target or drop the bomb in the sea (kaboom) because "the bombs could not be jettisoned [without detonating], and landing with an armed bomb on return to base was too hazardous to contemplate."

The only safety mechanism fell out by accident at least once. The RAF subsequently recommended storing these bombs upside down so that the safety mechanism wouldn't fall out again.

Teller may have been an evil monster, but I now have an increased appreciation for the moral value of basic competence in bomb design.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:24 AM on July 10, 2016 [6 favorites]


what? how on earth is a straightforward statement of fact misleading?

The facts are fine (and thanks for the link). But saying that it's a useful reference in this case is like saying we should cook our food on a tire fire because it saves electricity.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 11:29 AM on July 10, 2016 [4 favorites]


For actual reference, the LD50 for an average sized human is estimated to be around 22mg (injected, not ingested, but still). Now go play outside.

This is extremely misleading because a single particle of plutonium oxide (plutonium is quite flammable and burns in air to a very fine powder) lodged deep in the lungs will cause cancer in ~20 years most of the time. Restricting the discussion to injection and ingestion and leaving out the most likely and common mode of exposure -- breathing it in -- from an accident of the kind we're talking about here is a strategy for drastically understating the risk.
posted by jamjam at 11:41 AM on July 10, 2016 [4 favorites]


kleinsteradikaleminderheit - really not sure where you're going with this. You seem to be handwaving some kind of reason why Fukushima has some kind of inate evil that makes it worse than plutonium contamination, and you're coming over as a peddler of pseudoscience gibberish. It's not helpful.
posted by Artw at 11:45 AM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


artw - let me try to be more clear, and then maybe you can explain where you get the pseudoscience gibberish bit.

Releasing 7lb of Plutonium is bad [cite needed].
Fukushima released less than a gram of Plutonium [see above for reference].
I'm questioning the logic underlying the statement that this is a useful reference in this case. Fukushima isn't bad, or worse than this, because it released close to no Pu. It's worse because it released a lot of other stuff, including cesium-137 [see above]. The only reference provided by comparing amounts of Pu therefore seems misleading to me.

For reference, there was no Pu at all released in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill!
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 12:04 PM on July 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


Wow, Violet Club really is quite extraordinarily terrible even by the standards of badly designed nuclear weapons.

I mean seriously:
The Royal Air Force were so nervous of the outcome of a fire in storage that permission was sought to store the bombs inverted, so that a loss of the plastic bung could not end with the steel balls on the floor, leaving the HEU unprotected against a subsequent explosion.
Both the initial design and the proposed safety measure would be celebrated as Best Cludges of All Time, if the failure mode wasn't obliterating a significant chunk of real estate and probably starting WWIII.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:09 PM on July 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


+1 Command and Control
posted by j_curiouser at 1:15 PM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


don't want to come off as insulting the entire military but DAM people.
posted by clavdivs at 1:36 PM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Even by the high standards of mid-20th century British design, that Violet Club link is something special. In my head it's playing as a Carry On film, with maybe Norman Wisdom playing the ground crew.

Great code name though.
posted by Leon at 2:06 PM on July 10, 2016 [6 favorites]


Great code name though

I'm not sure I can do justice to the insanity of the times with one link, but here goes - the List of Rainbow Codes by which the British defence establishment ordered its affairs. Your new band name is almost certainly included.
posted by Devonian at 2:29 PM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


One stop shopping madness here.
posted by clavdivs at 2:36 PM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hmm, can't seem to link, that's odd.

Anywho, Google 'house in the middle'
posted by clavdivs at 2:37 PM on July 10, 2016


Been digging away at the Violet Club story. Turns out it was the last independently developed UK nuclear device - and it probably fulfilled its primary mission, which was to persuade the US to repeal the McMahon Act. Forget scaring the Soviets, this was there to shock our allies - the Brexit Bomb...
posted by Devonian at 3:36 PM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hey I researched the Monument Valley crash, they did clean up only small pieces left. I don't think there were nukes involved in the training flight.
posted by Oyéah at 3:51 PM on July 10, 2016


"The Air Force, that he cared so much about... He's finding out they didn't care that much about him."
posted by ctmf at 3:54 PM on July 10, 2016


British: "but what of the Hyde Park agreement?"

U.S.: "The what?"

British: "I see, perhaps you lost your copy?"

U.S.: "Doh!"
posted by clavdivs at 4:05 PM on July 10, 2016


It wasn't an agreement, it was an aide-memoire. If you don't circulate these things, they don't work.
posted by Devonian at 4:21 PM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Remembering the Time America Nuked Spain by Accident. In october 2012 Spain was still waiting for the US to clear up the mess - BBC.
It seems that Americans lost 11 nukes during the cold war by ``accident´´ emphasis mine. I meant you don´t go and loose those suckers on prpose do you?
Here is counterpunch article about when the Air Force jettisoned a hydrogen bomb over Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia in 1958.
posted by adamvasco at 4:24 PM on July 10, 2016


Your new band name is almost certainly included.

Violet Club would almost certainly be a shoegaze band from Manchester.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:27 PM on July 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


related:
Stanislan Petrov Day
Vasili Arkhipov: the man who saved the world in 1962

fuck-yeah-human-savers
posted by j_curiouser at 5:14 PM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Violet Club would almost certainly be a shoegaze band from Manchester.

Or a more homoerotic version of the Hellfire Club.
posted by acb at 5:35 PM on July 10, 2016


Huh, so that memoirs thingie is like some mnemonic marker shared by Winnie and Franklin over a jigger of Bootles? The Quebec Agreement wiki page uses the phrase "Hyde park agreement" which was filed under "tube alloys". So, are you saying the Agreement was just a amendment to Quebec agreement with no legal binding because it was, like, misfiled?
posted by clavdivs at 5:39 PM on July 10, 2016


Our Violet Club has balls of steel
They reflect our nation's zeal
Lest our country be undone
A soldier grabs the plastic bung
Gives it a twist and off it flies
So Britain's foes will vaporise.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:40 PM on July 10, 2016 [12 favorites]


And let it be said
When we hypothetical the dead
That the atom is our friend
Though alight with fear
This Bomb shaped tear
With no lease and no lend.
posted by clavdivs at 6:24 PM on July 10, 2016 [4 favorites]


If you don't circulate these things, they don't work.

The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost... IF YOU KEEP IT A SECRET!
posted by kaibutsu at 7:07 PM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm game to hate plutonium and military cover-ups right along with you, but I am uneasy with the Times' willingness to conflate cancers and neurological disorders affecting these men in their 70s and 80s with those afflicting them in their 20s and 30s.
posted by gingerest at 11:53 PM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


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