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EXPLOSIVE RESULTS Learning from (Near) Disaster In 1966, a B-52 collided with a tanker over Palomares, Spain, while refueling. Three of its four hydrogen bombs fell on land, and the fourth fell into the sea, where it was recovered after a lengthy search (see photo on page 17). Two bombs were destroyed when their conventional high explosives detonated; the surviving two bomb casings are on display at the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The incident helped prompt the initiative at Los Alamos to develop insensitive high explosives to prevent future accidental explosions of nuclear weapons. (Photo: Sandia National Laboratories) Just short of high noon on May 22, 1957, an Air Force B-36 bomber was powering down on its final approach to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, completing what should have been a routine flight ferrying a nuclear weapon from a base in Texas. In an instant, all hell broke loose. of the nuclear program. In a dozen cases, the conventional high explosives unintentionally detonated, and although none tripped a nuclear explosion, they sometimes wreaked destruction and injured or killed crew members and rescuers alike. A 1950 B-29 crash in California claimed 19 lives. A few miles south of the control tower and 1,700 feet off the deck, the bomb bay doors of the huge plane sprang open. In a blink the nuclear bomb plunged earthward, smashing into the ground seconds later with an impact that detonated the high-explosive charges designed to trigger the weapon’s nuclear material. The ensuing explosion destroyed the weapon and blasted a crater 12 feet deep and 25 feet wide, hurling debris and bomb fragments a mile away. Two tragic, high-profile incidents spewed radioactive material around the landscape and elevated awareness of the risks involved. In January 1966, a B-52 carrying four nuclear weapons collided with its refueling tanker plane at high altitude above Palomares, Spain, knocking both from the air and killing several crew members. The high explosives of two nuclear weapons exploded when they slammed into the ground, scattering plutonium and other nuclear materials up to 500 yards away and contaminating about 650 acres. One bomb whose descent was slowed by a parachute did not detonate, and another disappeared into the Mediterranean Sea; it was recovered more than two months later after the most expensive salvage operation in U.S. Naval history. As awful as that accident sounds, a nuclear detonation was impossible. For safety, bomb designs in those days centered on a removable capsule of nuclear material carried separately on the plane. The crew would only insert the capsule to arm the weapon in an actual combat operation. This bomb was not armed. The Kirtland calamity was just one of 32 cited in a 1981 Department of Defense (DoD) report covering the history 16 Workers hauled off 1,400 tons of soil and vegetation, which were shipped to the United States for disposal, and burned or buried nearby tomato crops that were a key agricultural Los Alamos National Laboratory