Broken Arrow, Part 2 (of 3):
Commentary About Three Broken Arrow Incidents Outside the USA
Below: General view of the Broken Arrow town site at Palomares
Note the fences within fences as the hazardous areas were extended years later (click to enlarge)
First let's talk about Broken Arrow (No. 7) at RAF Lakenheath back in 1956.
You'll see why we've homed in on this incident soon. This airbase was located in Suffolk, England and is situated fairly centrally in East Anglia near the boundary with Norfolk. Although officially a Royal Air Force station, remarkably Lakenheath at that time was operated by United States Air Force units and personnel. On July 27 1956 an American B-47 landed routinely but went out of control and crashed into a storage building containing three Mark 6 nuclear bombs (we believe these to be implosion-triggered plutonium fission weapons containing large amounts of nuclear material). The ensuing blaze of jet fuel was eventually extinguished and the detonators*, containing about 8,000 lbs of TNT each, did not explode, however, the weapons were damaged and the four aircrew were killed. An Air Force officer present at the scene said later, of the fire fight, "it was a combination of tremendous heroism, good fortune and the will of God".
|It was claimed that no capsules of nuclear materials were in the weapons or present in the building and there were no contamination or clean up problems. However other parts of the record indicate otherwise because a retired Air Force general who was in the UK at the time said "It is possible that a part of Eastern England would have become a desert had the TNT exploded and showered radioactive materials over a wide area". Believe what you will but, had the worst scenario come to pass, the event surely would have been detrimental to the particular Anglo-US relationship and the american nuclear presence in England. Since the bombs were apparently designed to contain substantial quantities of plutonium much of East Anglia could have been contaminated, effectively for ever. OK, so much of this comment is based on dubious conjecture but it is of special interest to this author who, at that time, was stationed at a British RAF base only 30-35 miles away.
The assumption that plutonium could be scattered around by explosion is not fanciful. In fact this happened at least twice roughly a decade later. These later accidents took place in Spain and Greenland with serious after effects in the countries concerned and large financial costs for the US arising from direct loss followed by clean-up and ongoing compensation. No doubt these incidents caused serious worries both for the Europeans and Americans and it was shortly afterwards that the US nuclear strategy was changed and the air-alert system was run down in favour of ICBMs.
The second of these two incidents (No 30) occurred in Thule, Greenland, 21 January 1968 (We'll come back to the earlier one in Palomares in a moment). An american B-52 was flying over the Arctic circle, carrying four, 1.1 megaton bombs as part of the 'air-alert' strategy, when a fire broke out on board. The pilot tried to make an emergency landing at Thule air base but failed and and the seven crew bailed out; six survived. The airplane crashed in the ice 7.5 miles from Thule and all four bombs were destroyed in the explosions scattering radioactive material over an unspecified area. A major exercise followed to clean up the area and together with compensation the cost to the US is not specified exactly but including the cost of the lost aircraft is estimated vaguely at millions of dollars. It is noteworthy that Greenland was part of Denmark which prohibited nuclear weapons on or over their territory so this accident caused severe protests against the US.
The Palomares accident (No 29) 17 January 1966 was a similar incident but involved an air crash between two 'planes and was near the coast of SE Spain. The B-52 bomber carrying four nuclear weapons collided with the KC-135 which was refuelling it. Four of the combined crew of 11 survived and the four bombs were dropped. One of the bombs landed in the sea intact, and the others landed in the vicinity of Palomares. The detonators of two of these exploded spreading radioactive material over a wide area, the magnitude of which seems to vary depending on which account you read but it was extensive. The search for the one that landed in the sea is described as "the most expensive, intensive, harrowing and feverish underwater search for a man-made object in world history". We have visited the area and gossip has it that a local saw where it landed and told the americans where to look. The anecdote continues saying that they ignored the advice, nevertheless they eventually found it just where he had said. If that is true then the US wasted important time and an awful lot of money.
Palomares was considered to be one of the worst Broken Arrow accidents and reports in 2007 indicate clearly that further concerns are still being investigated. We shall comment on that development in Part 3. As far as costs, excluding the sea search, are concerned the loss of the aircraft was estimated at 11 million dollars and the clean up and compensation must have been tremendous. How much it cost to remove the 1,750 tons of soil to South Carolina (as is claimed) and continue monitoring the sites, to this day, is any one's guess. On top of this the US had (it's said) paid 6 hundred thousand dollars in compensation to residents by 1969 and built a desalination plant worth 2 hundred thousand dollars. We find it strange that the compensation, direct and indirect, should have been so small an amount and would not be surprised if the actual sum was much greater and maybe it is still growing.
We have firm evidence of recent reassessments of, and extensions to the areas in question, which must have involved substantial costs and also that routine annual medical examination of some residents continue (at least up to 2012). As a result of our visits up and close, we have accumulated a cache of exclusive photographs of the devastated areas.
[This commentary is concluded in Part 3 with further information about Palomares and some of our photographs]
By Gordon Shaw
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Page originated: 10 October, 2008. Last updated: 28 October, 2013