The Broken Arrow Project: Visualizing the Dangers of Maintaining the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

January 17, 1966 - Palomares, Spain

Accidental Nuclear War
"Despite the most elaborate precautions, it is conceivable that technical malfunction or human failure, a misinterpreted incident or unauthorized action, could trigger a nuclear disaster or nuclear war."

Introduction of U.S.-Soviet Treaty

U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament


September 1971

DOD: The B-52 and the KC-135 collided during a routine high altitude air refueling operation. Both aircraft crashed near Palomares, Spain. Four of the eleven crew members survived. The B-52 carried four nuclear weapons. One was recovered on the ground, and one was recovered from the sea, on April 7, after extensive search and recovery efforts. Two of the weapons' high explosive materials exploded on impact with the ground, releasing some radioactive materials. Approximately 1400 tons of slightly contaminated soil and vegetation were removed to the United States for storage at an approved site. Representatives of the Spanish government monitored the clean-up operation.

CDI: The DOD summary is a typically low-key account of the most well-publicized nuclear accident which resulted in what has been described as "the most expensive, intensive, harrowing ·and feverish underwater search for a man-made object in world history." The B-52 was returning to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base at Goldsboro, North Carolina, after flying the southern route of the SAC air alert missions (code-named "Chrome Dome"). It was attempting its third refueling of the mission with a KC-135 tanker from the American base at Moron, in southwestern Spain, near Sevilla. Although the official report of the cause of the accident was not released to the public, it is believed that while attempting to dock at 30,000 ft. above the Spanish coast, the nozzle of the tanker's boom, which was supposed to hook up with the B-52's orifice, struck the bomber, ripping open the B-52 along its spine and causing aerodynamic stress which snapped the bomber into pieces. Flames spurted through both planes and the KC-135's 40,000 gallons of jet fuel ignited, killing its four crew members almost immediately. Four of the seven crew members of the B-52 managed to eject and parachute to safety. As the two planes, worth $11,000,000 and weighing loaded nearly 800,000 lbs., crashed and burned, wreckage fell across an area of land and water of about 100 square miles. Of the four H-bombs (believed to be in the 20-25 megaton range) aboard, one fell to earth and remained relatively intact, two scattered plutonium widely over the fields of Palomares when their high explosive material detonated, and one fell into the ocean. For the next three months the village was turned upside down as the search, decontamination and removal operation began. Estimates for the amount of radioactive soil and vegetation removed to the nuclear dumping site at Aiken, South Carolina, range up to 1,750 tons. The weapon that sank in the Mediterranean caused the greatest problem. Its recovery required the assembly of a naval task force, including a small armada of miniature research submarines, scuba teams, sonar experts, nuclear weapons engineers, oceanic photographers, and hundreds of sailors aboard ships of the Sixth Fleet which were called in to seal the area. It took two weeks for the midget sub "Alvin" to sight the bomb, entangled in its parachute 12 miles off Palomares on a 70 degree slope at a depth of 2,500 feet. After a series of failed attempts, the bomb was finally recovered on April 7, dented but intact, with no known radiation leakage. The Palomares search took about eighty days and required the services of 3,000 Navy personnel and 33 Navy vessels, not counting ships, planes and people used to move equipment to the site. By 1969, a U.S. Commission had settled 522 claims by Palomares residents totalling $600,000. It also gave the town of Palomares the gift of a desalting plant, which cost about $200,000 to build.


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