Nuclear Weapons Accidents “Simply a Fact of Life:” Declassified State Department History on Palomares and Thule Clean-up and Negotiations
Renewed interest in the historical record on nuclear weapons accidents sparked by Eric Schlosser’s new book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin Press, 2013), makes it timely to post a declassified State Department history on two major accidents during the mid-1960s: the B-52 crashes near Palomares, Spain and Thule, Greenland in 1966 and 1968 respectively. Both accidents involved nuclear armed- bombers on routine Strategic Air Command airborne alert patrols, a controversial program which senior Defense Department officials had been trying to kill for several years. (The Thule accident finally gave them that opportunity).
In the Palomares accident, a B-52 bomber crashed into a KC-135 refueling tanker midair over the coastal village of Palomares, Spain causing one of the nuclear weapons on-board to go missing in the Mediterranean until divers finally recovered it.
In the Greenland accident, where a B-52 bomber crashed on an ice-covered bay near Thule air base, four nuclear weapons broke up scattering radioactive debris widely.
Both accidents posed difficult public relations challenges for the U.S. government which followed a strict “neither confirm nor deny” policy on its overseas nuclear deployments. Thus, goaded by inquisitive journalists, Air Force press officers went through contortions to acknowledge that “the thing that is not a bomb” had not yet been found off the Spanish coast.
Prepared in 1985 by James Miller, then with the Office of the Historian at the State Department, the study was commissioned by the Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, which wanted to know if any lessons could be learned from those accidents. According to Colonel Michael Barrett Seaton, a Bureau official who signed the foreword: with overseas U.S. nuclear deployments a “fact of life,” and the risk of accident always present, U.S. officials believed that “the degree of damage to U.S. national security from any future nuclear accident or incident would depend in large part on the quality of U.S. Government and host government management of the emergency.” In this connection, Seaton found Miller’s study because it provided “insight” on the demands that an accident could make on U.S. embassies and their staff.
After a FOIA appeal, a State Department panel declassified most of the previously withheld information as indicated by gray areas on the document. This included substantial portions of the foreword, information on the post-accident cleanup at Palomares, diplomatic negotiations over U.S. nuclear access, and the supporting documents appended to the history. Worried about the possibility of another accident, the Franco government refused to reinstate nuclear overflights over Spanish territory: it was “’out of the question’ for the foreseeable future.” Secret talks led to the renegotiation of the 1951 Defense Agreement and an informal understanding from 1957. Although Washington had again fought to restore nuclear overflights and nuclear storage rights, it had to accept the Danish position that both would require “prior consultations.” The Danish government would publicly state and restate its position against nuclear overflights and storage of nuclear weapons in Greenland, but Washington refused to comment.
This version of the Miller history was released on appeal. Most of the excised portions were released but two remain, both relating to the Thule incident (see PDF page 21). One is of a statement made by a U.S. official to a Danish diplomat a few days after the crash; the other concerns the search and clean-up efforts after the Thule incident. The second deletion may relate to a missing part of one of the H-bombs, what Danish scholar Svend Aage Christensen calls the bomb’s “spark plug,” the uranium-235 in the second stage “or secondary” of a thermonuclear weapon. Despite strenuous underwater search efforts, the “spark plug,” around the size of a “marshall’s baton,” was never found, While a BBC story suggested that only three of the four bombs were destroyed and that an entire H-bomb may have gone missing, Christensten’s fascinating study for the Danish Institute of International Affairs convincingly argues otherwise.
 . For a useful background on SAC airborne alert and the Palomares and Thule accidents, see Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton, 1993), 156-198. Every hour of the day a B-52 flew over the ballistic missile early warning station at Thule. If the station went off-line because of an attack, the bomber would warn Strategic Air Command headquarters of the aggression.
 . Svend Aage Christensen, The Marshal’s Baton: There is no bomb, there was no bomb, they were not looking for a bomb http://subweb.diis.dk/sw81978.asp (Copenhagen, DIIS, 2009).