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The Military Government United States

US Will Clean Area In Spain Where Hydrogen Bombs Fell (nytimes.com) 216

HughPickens.com writes: Rafael Minder writes in the NY Times that almost 50 years after coming close to possibly provoking a nuclear disaster, Secretary of State John Kerry, following years of wrangling between Spain and the U.S., signed an agreement to remove contaminated soil from an area in southern Spain where an American warplane accidentally dropped hydrogen bombs. In 1966 a bomber collided with a refueling tanker in midair and dropped four hydrogen bombs, two of which released plutonium into the atmosphere. No warheads detonated, narrowly averting what could have been an explosion more powerful than the atomic strikes against Japan at the end of World War II. Four days after the accident, the Spanish government stated that "the Palomares incident was evidence of the dangers created by NATO's use of the Gibraltar airstrip," announcing that NATO aircraft would no longer be permitted to fly over Spanish territory either to or from Gibraltar. The U.S. later announced that it would no longer fly over Spain with nuclear weapons, and the Spanish government formally banned U.S. flights over its territory that carried such weapons.

Neither Kerry nor Spanish Foreign Minister García-Margallo said exactly how much contaminated soil would be sent back, where it would be stored in the United States, or who would pay for the cleanup — some of the issues that have held up a deal until now. Spain has insisted that any contaminated soil be sent to the United States, because Spain does not have plants to store it. Concern over the site was reawakened in the 1990s when tests revealed high levels of americium, an isotope of plutonium, and further tests showed that 50,000 cubic meters of earth were still contaminated. The Spanish government appropriated the land in 2003 to prevent it being used.

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US Will Clean Area In Spain Where Hydrogen Bombs Fell

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @06:10PM (#50769125)

    Americium is NOT an isotope of plutonium, it is a decay product of Uranium/Plutonium, specifically

    see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Americium#Isotope_nucleosyntheses

    Jack ass

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @06:15PM (#50769163)

      Americium, Fuck Yeah!

      • Americium [wikipedia.org]: a dangerous, unstable element which decays with a half life of 141 years. On the periodic table exists below the lanthanide europium, with which it shares many similarities. It has a silvery-white metallic lustre when freshly prepared which slowly tarnishes over time. While similar to europium it is much denser partly due to the larger mass of its constituent atoms.
    • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

      Americium is NOT an isotope of plutonium, it is a decay product of Uranium/Plutonium, specifically

      Americium is the highest element on the periodic table that you can buy at Walmart. It is used ionize air in some smoke alarms.

    • by quenda ( 644621 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @10:53PM (#50770609)
      and while you are at it, plutonium 239 is not "highly radioactive" as claimed in TFA. They might be thinking of pu-238 used in RTGs, or just have no idea what they are talking about. Plutonium 239 is an alpha emitter, so very dangerous if inhaled - a risk after the explosion 50 years ago, but not now that it is bound up in the soil and water. You could safely grown vegetables in the soil and eat them. Just don't grow tobacco - getting pu239 traces in your lungs could give you cancer.
      • Just don't grow tobacco - getting pu239 traces in your lungs could give you cancer.

        Most people smoking tobacco are already disregarding a well known cancer risk....

    • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @05:34AM (#50771659)

      Americium is NOT an isotope of plutonium, it is a decay product of Uranium/Plutonium, specifically

      That was the first thing that struck me when I read OP.

      And I think it's probably fair to say that the fact that they didn't blow up was far from an accident; they were designed that way.

  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @06:11PM (#50769133) Journal

    They'll turn all that Americium into smoke detectors and we'll all get to listen to that fucking beep in the middle of the night because nobody can seem to make a detector that has a light sensor on it.

  • by dunkindave ( 1801608 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @06:14PM (#50769157)
    I know the poster pulled it from the article, but Americium is a by-product from the radioactive decay of Plutonium, not an isotope of Plutonium. Isotopes have the same number of protons, and Pu has 94 while Am has 95. Plutonium converts to Americium via a beta decay, which causes a neutron to turn into a proton.
    • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @06:33PM (#50769301)

      Plutonium converts to Americium via a beta decay, which causes a neutron to turn into a proton.

      After a couple neutrons are captured. Am-241 is the most common isotope (half life of 400-odd years). Pu-239 captures two neutrons (rarely), then undergoes beta decay to become Am-241.

      Since this normally requires a specially designed reactor to produce, the amount produced casually by four bombs will have been minuscule.

      Which is not to say it shouldn't be cleaned up. Just that the urgency of the cleanup is pretty much consistent with taking 50 years to get around to it.

      Note the amount of material being discussed (50000 m^3 of dirt). Cleanup can be done with one of those big earth movers used when strip mining in a few months, tops....

      • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @08:08PM (#50769943)

        Yea it won't take much to clean this up, that's for sure...

        One thing, I'm guessing the Am-241 was in the original fission material of the bomb and not really from Pu-239 decay, but either way, there is going to be so very little of it. Given it's spread out over about 500 acres by the conventional explosives, I'm wondering why Spain is still pushing to get this clean up done. It's been over 50 years now and all a huge excavation project will really accomplish is to make a mess.

        Well, if it pumps some dollars into the local Spanish economy it might be worth the trouble... But really, what's the big deal at this point? Couldn't we just pay them for the land, put up a fence with "keep out for 3,000 years" signs and be done with this? Or is having this material so dangerous to Spain that it's worth taking a few million cubic meters of dirt and dumping it in the ocean?

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Its been in the ground since "In 1966 a bomber collided with a refueling tanker in midair and dropped four hydrogen bombs"
      Modern tests will find all kinds of interesting products from the material lost over the years :) Thats why a good, total early clean up is so important.
  • "No Explosion" (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @06:16PM (#50769175)

    Of course there wasn't. This isn't nitroglycerin, and there are SO MANY layers of safety devices on these bombs this just not a possibility. The bomb has to be employed intentionally.

    • Re:"No Explosion" (Score:5, Informative)

      by Beck_Neard ( 3612467 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @07:42PM (#50769759)

      While it's true that nuclear weapons usually have to be detonated in a very precise manner to create a full yield explosion, it's not true that accidental detonation is not a possibility. Depending on the weapon design, accidental detonation can actually be quite likely (a few percent of all hypothetical impact/fire scenarios). The details of this can get very technical, but the gist of it is that due to various size constraints many weapons were designed with two-point detonation systems ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] ) and these are very prone to accidental nuclear detonation. It was partly as a response to this that insensitive high explosive detonators were developed. Labs like DART have the responsibility of thoroughly testing nuclear weapons primaries to make sure that (1) they will explode when required and (2) will not explode when not required.

      'Safety devices' are a completely different issue and they prevent an unauthorized person from activating the device's detonator.

      • minor correction: It's DARHT, not DART.

      • What I doubt is the appropriateness of choosing to refer to it by stating "narrowly averting what could have been an explosion". While your argument is clearly appropriate, even your explanation states " (a few percent of all hypothetical impact/fire scenarios)". To me, as a person who believes the roulette wheel is mathematically and tested and proven to favor the house by adding only one green slot, until we hit 50/50, I consider such journalism questionable nonsense written by a fool who can't be bother
    • Re:"No Explosion" (Score:5, Informative)

      by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @08:22PM (#50770031)

      This bomb design actually was a bit dangerous because the conventional explosives where a bit unstable during aircraft crash events. This crash and another one two years later caused a number of changes to nuclear bomb design after the Mk28.

      Where I don't think "narrowly avoided a nuclear explosion" is anywhere near accurate, these bombs did explode conventionally and spread their radioactive content around and there is a *remote* possibility that these devices when flying in the "Chrome Dome" operation could have accidently caused a nuclear explosion during a crash because they would have been fully armed physically. I hear that the Mk28 had a number of fail physical and electrical fail safe systems that made it nearly impossible to explode in a nuclear way, but it's not impossible to have these systems disabled/defeated during an accident. If it could go nuclear on command, it's remotely possible to do it on accident.

    • Re:"No Explosion" (Score:5, Informative)

      by Eythian ( 552130 ) <robin @ k a l l i s t i .net.nz> on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @08:57PM (#50770199) Homepage

      You should read "Command and Control." It's a very good book, but you come away with the feeling that it was more good luck than good management that there were no accidental nuclear detonations. And then you consider that the Soviet side was probably at least as bad, if not worse, and you're surprised there's still a planet here at all.

  • Long time (Score:2, Troll)

    by AndyKron ( 937105 )
    After 2 generations...
    • by ADRA ( 37398 )

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/bo... [nih.gov]

      Coles notes, if you were a woman exposed to said chemicals (and possibly still exposed to them), you have a good change of passing on defects to future generations. Of course the US doesn't give two sh*ts about the nations of the world, so no reparations for chemical exposure resulting in berth defects will ever be paid out... ohh well.

  • by chispito ( 1870390 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @06:27PM (#50769257)
    Sorry, but that's not what "narrow" means, because that's not how nuclear weapons are detonated. If there was a remote chance of setting off a hydrogen bomb simply by dropping it, I don't think even the craziest hawk would have been putting the things in planes to begin with.

    No warheads detonated, narrowly averting what could have been an explosion more powerful than the atomic strikes against Japan at the end of World War II.

    • by tnk1 ( 899206 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @06:49PM (#50769403)

      Because nuclear weapons tend to require carefully timed simultaneous detonations of explosives in a controlled manner in order to compress the fission core to a supercritical mass, it is unlikely that simply dropping the bomb (unarmed) or even having some of the explosives used for core compression go off will create an actual nuclear scale detonation.

      However, the explosives for the explosive lens can go off and distribute radioactive material over a relatively wide area. This was more of a threat in the past, when explosives used in the bombs were somewhat more sensitive. Additionally, some explosives become more sensitive over time, so bombs stored for long periods could have somewhat more sensitive explosives and react badly to an accidental drop or crash.

      All of that being said... an actual accidental nuclear explosion is extremely unlikely, but not entirely impossible in the case of an accident, and it was much, much more likely back when these bombs were dropped in Spain.

      Also, there was one time where a bomb was lost where all but one of the safeties had been deactivated. And that was a mechanical breaker which could well have been flipped. Luckily, that sort of thing was much more common when SAC was actually doing regular strategic deterrent missions and bomb design had not progressed as far as it has today.

      • However, the explosives for the explosive lens can go off and distribute radioactive material over a relatively wide area.

        That still would not be an explosion more powerful than etc., as the article claims it would have been. It's still nonsense and propaganda.

      • An improper detonation will not go nuclear, you just end up with a normal explosion scattering radioactive material, aka a dirty explosion. Though with the amount of material spread over the area, individual exposure is more than you'd want, but not actually rated as dangerous.
        What people are talking about is standard hollywood fud & bullshit. It's NOT real people!
        As to the odds of an accident like that actually causing a nuclear detonation, it's somewhere close to the probability of a dissolved sugar c
        • > In other words, slightly less than monkeys flying out your ass
          I have rectal-aero-primacitus you insensitive clod !

    • I don't know what happened in this accident, but there was another in North Carolina where a B-52 broke up in the air with two H-bombs a 3 of the 4 fail safes failed, furtunately the last one prevented the explosion, but was a very close call.

      In this one it seems to have occured an explosion, which is why Pu was scatered, but it did caused fission or fusion of the materials.
  • by zlives ( 2009072 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @06:37PM (#50769327)

    More research needs to be done on this... Spanish Soil welcome to Idaho

    • Just add some tobacco crops [wikia.com]! Or, we could bring the concept forward into the 21st century, and make potannabis, and subsequently chips from those -- 'They're the mellow munchy!'

  • by sims 2 ( 994794 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @07:01PM (#50769509)

    So we have agreed to clean it up where are we going to put it?

    The US agreed to store nuclear waste from all of our reactors back in the 1960's they still haven't been able to decide where to put it over 50 years later.

    If they do clean it up and ship it back to the US by boat it will stay on that boat at the dock until the boat rusts out and sinks.

    • This stuff? A few million cubic feet of soil? Easy, dump it in the Ocean.

      It's not like this stuff is horribly dangerous or really radio active. Just barge it out to sea where it's really deep and push it over the side. End of problem. Want to keep it tied up a few thousand years? Encase it in concrete and push it over the side one block at a time. Either way, cheap and easy.

      • This stuff? A few million cubic feet of soil? Easy, dump it in the Ocean.

        It's not like this stuff is horribly dangerous or really radio active. Just barge it out to sea where it's really deep and push it over the side. End of problem. Want to keep it tied up a few thousand years? Encase it in concrete and push it over the side one block at a time. Either way, cheap and easy.

        Ohh we should dump it off the coast of Japan, near Tokyo. I've been waiting for Godzilla for a long time now.

  • by WinstonWolfIT ( 1550079 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @07:23PM (#50769633)

    Nukes from day one have been designed to only detonate after a specific series of human and environmental interactions. A non-activated nuke is dirty, but it's never going to explode.

    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      by meerling ( 1487879 )
      It will not go nuclear. It can still explode, but it will only be a low order or high order detonation depending on the condition of the case when it goes off.
      To the ignorant or the stupid that think high order means a mushroom cloud, not it doesn't, that's nuclear.
      The order, high or low, is defined by the speed at which the explosive burns or detonates. A nuclear explosion is WAY beyond those parameters and so has it's own classification. Off the top of my head, I've forgotten the feet per second on those
  • by Michael Woodhams ( 112247 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @08:13PM (#50769975) Journal

    Although people associate uranium with radioactivity, it is only very slightly radioactive (half life > 1 billion years), so if you don't assemble a critical mass the danger is actually chemical. (Heavy metals have a strong tendency to be toxic.)

    Other posters have said that here we are dealing with plutonium-239, which has a half life of 24000 years. That is orders of magnitude greater activity (shorter life) than uranium. I've reached the end of my knowledge here - which is worse, is the radioactivity or the chemical toxicity of plutonium-239?

    TFA suggests they are worried about radioactivity: "A main concern has been that the remaining plutonium was being allowed to degenerate into other radioactive components like americium, which emits gamma rays that travel farther and are hard to block" but concern is not always well founded, and reporters don't always get it right.

    • by quenda ( 644621 )

      which is worse, is the radioactivity or the chemical toxicity of plutonium-239?

      Neither. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      "There were about 25 workers from Los Alamos National Laboratory who inhaled a considerable amount of plutonium dust during 1940s; according to the hot-particle theory, each of them has a 99.5% chance of being dead from lung cancer by now, but there has not been a single lung cancer among them."[124][126] Plutonium has a metallic taste.[127]

  • by decsnake ( 6658 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @08:31PM (#50770077) Homepage

    The posters here with the blase attitudes regarding nuclear weapons accidents ought to consider reading the book "Command and Control" and marvel at the fact we made it thru the cold war at all.

    Regarding clean-up: when accidents happened on US territory we cleaned it up, even at Thule AFB, which is about as close to the end of the earth as you can get. We also contaminated the other end of the earth for good measure (leaky reactor at McMurdo Station Antarctica). In both cases the contaminated soil was 'disposed of' at the Savannah River Plant.

  • by jdavidb ( 449077 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2015 @08:52PM (#50770175) Homepage Journal

    Americium is not an isotope of Plutonium. It's a separate element. Americium is atomic number 95 and Plutonium is atomic number 94. Isotopes have the same atomic number.

    Surprised there's not a +5 comment explaining this already.

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