It's no secret that the American military is a fairly messed up institution. If it's not being exposed for failing to combat the high rates of sexual assault and rape of female officers in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War, it's being investigated for concealing the deaths of multiple civilians in Afghanistan during the US occupation of the country (read Jeremy Scahill's book Dirty Wars if you're interested in that one).
Yet, even with such a sullied reputation, it may come as a shock to learn that, in 1966, the American military accidentally dropped four atomic bombs on Spain, but managed to minimise the incident to the extent that it's been virtually washed clean from history. A mixture of savvy PR from the US government and patchy reporting from international media means that most of us don't even know it happened.
So here's what happened: on the 17th of January, 1966, a US B52 bomber collided with a refuelling aircraft in Spanish airspace. The crash meant that four hydrogen bombs were dropped. Two hit the ground at speed, imploding and releasing plutonium into the soil of the Andalusian town of Palomares. Meanwhile, parachutes were deployed on the other two bombs. One hit the ground without detonating and the other landed in the Mediterranean Sea still intact.
Professor John Howard is an American academic, author and photographer. He has spent the last five or so years travelling to Palomares in order to document the remains of the nuclear disaster with his camera. While he can't physically photograph the remains of the plutonium – despite the fact it still sits within the soil – he instead captures the ramifications of this military nightmare on the people, economy and landscape of Palomares.
Howard's project, entitled "White Sepulchres", was released as a full body of work earlier this year. It tells the story of the cover up and impact of the bombs through its eerie, desolate imagery, which stands in contrast to the visceral and violent images we might have seen of Chernobyl or Fukushima. We spoke to John about one of the forgotten stories of warfare in the 20th century.
VICE: Hi John. Do you want to start by telling us how you came across the story of Palomares to begin with?
John Howard: Well, I first travelled to Andalusia in 1993, but I didn't hear about this incident until 2010. I would hear the briefest mention on the wind, and it was always imprecise. I just followed; it was like detective work. As I found out more, I became hugely angry and ashamed that I had no knowledge of it. As an American citizen by birth and an American historian by training, it was really galling. The more I looked into the bombing, the more I found further levels of concealment.
How did America cover it up?
These events are called "broken arrows". That's the code name when the US government loses or breaks a hydrogen bomb. This guy in John Woo's film Broken Arrow says, "I don't know what's scarier – losing nuclear weapons, or that it's happened so often there's actually a code name for it."
The US admit to 32 of these "broken arrows". Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist, estimates 100 for the 1950s alone, and for the US Air Force alone, claiming that the navy and army failed to keep track. The template for US defence in the case of a "broken arrow" is to deny, and if people find out, to minimise. This means they forever belittle the event of Palomares in their reports – "tiny little village", "sleepy". Journalists were using these demeaning, trivialising discourses, too. They were shot right through all the narratives.
Didn't people notice a huge explosion at the time?
Well, one thing is crucial to understanding the US response to the incident. The bomb that landed in the Med, it took them 80 days to get it out. They brought in 32 ships, closed the sea shore. People couldn't fish – some people starved. This bomb became the object of international press attention, and very cunningly, the Air Force told navy photographers to give the press images. The thinking was to give journalists something of interest so as to shift the attention away from the land to the sea. That bomb became the lost bomb – singular – and it worked brilliantly. Then President Lyndon B Jonhson's Spanish ambassador even went swimming in the Mediterranean to prove its safety – it was the front page of the New York Times.
Why do people in Andalusia not speak about it more today?
People with financial interests in the area – wealthy people, landholders who still have agriculture there – they don't want their migrant farm workers to know they are harvesting soil that contains plutonium. Nowadays, there's also a tourism industry, and the proprietors of those venues don't want visitors to know that thousands of barrels of hot soil were filled and then shipped away for burial. Actually, not all of it was shipped away – some of it was left there and buried; a literal cover up.
What is that hazard exactly? What are the health risks from an accident like this?
We don't know how much plutonium lives on. Some have estimated that ten kilos of plutonium were spilled. To put that into perspective, one milligram of plutonium in your lung will give you lung cancer. So that's the level of severity. If a kilo or two is still on the ground, then anyone could inhale it on the wind. We know plutonium is in the food chain, but ingestion isn't as severe as inhalation, which they say is a guarantee of lung cancer. I'm not only worried about the people who have lived in Palomares a long time, but the people who pass through, who will never be told.
Has anyone charted the long-term health effects?
They haven't, apart from a 150-person subset who used to have to get on the bus every year and go to Madrid for tests. They're still monitored. But because there was an exodus of half the population – 1,000 people moved away – it's hard to systematically get at their medical records. We know some people have died, we know about a leukaemia case and miscarriages. But there's little incentive for authorities to track this long-term. I think we need international, multilateral action; something like the International Court of Justice, or even the ICRP – International Commission on Radioactive Protection. The US have handled this badly for decades, Spain have, too – partly because they were in the throes of a dictatorship when it happened. So it needs to be done by a reliable international body.
Does Palomares still export produce?
Yeah. At the time the accident happened, the Germans and the UK were talking about how a lot of their produce comes from this area, but then six consecutive tomato harvests failed on the land, so the agricultural economy slowed. Now, they farm there again.
Couldn't this project end up having an effect on all that?
I'm ambivalent. Do I bring up the bombing and risk agricultural markets collapsing again? No. And yet I'm worried about those migrant workers, hands in the soil, kicking up dirt. They have the greatest likelihood of inhaling plutonium. And five years down the line, if they get cancer, we don't necessarily know where they are going to be. So attribution becomes very difficult.
How has the incident changed the economy in Palomares over the last 50 years?
A sex industry has sprung up for the economy. This is a destination of last resorts for nudists, the LGBT community and straight swingers. There are sex worker's adverts on telephone poles. It's a rural sex district all around the periphery of Palomares. There's a cruising ground and people come from other parts of Spain. There's one four-star nudist hotel and their menus are in four languages – German, French, English, Spanish – so they are very much catering to an international clientele. There's a drag club, the name of which translates as "Who Cares?" – a reflection on that, "Fuck, it we're gonna die anyway" attitude.
In terms of the photos, was it hard to decide what to photograph? You were really capturing a sense of absence, so how did you decide what to shoot?
It's probably my foremost regret around the project that there were not more portraits. I'm very careful around consent with portraiture – I only got portraits of people I knew well for that reason. I shot at an angle or distance to ensure the anonymity of the farm workers, for example. Approaching them in the field would have created problematic discussions with overseers. I was documenting something not visible to the naked eye, so I suppose I was looking for poignant traces. The swingers club, the gay bar, the drag bar – they speak for themselves in their audacity.
Were you ever concerned for your health going to Palomares and doing the story?
Initially yes, but I dispensed with it. I decided the importance of getting the word out was more important.
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