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March/April 2020

Palomares Nuclear Disaster

As Cold War tensions escalated in the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force initiated long-range patrols by B-52 bombers carrying nuclear payloads. They flew from sites within the U.S. to the border of the Soviet Union, maintaining rapid first strike and retaliatory capabilities. The bomber patrols operated on a 24-7 basis, which necessitated midair refueling. On the morning of January 17, 1966, a B-52 approached a KC-135 tanker at the designated refueling position off the southeastern coast of Spain.

The B-52 maneuvered under the tanker. Then something went wrong. The planes collided. The tanker was instantly swallowed in a fireball that killed all four crewmembers. The B-52’s wings tore away as the fuselage began to break apart. Four of the seven crewmembers were able to eject amid burning aircraft debris. The nuclear payload—four hydrogen bombs—fell from the disintegrating aircraft as their parachutes deployed.

Each bomb carried a 1.5-megaton warhead, some 75 times the power of the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One bomb was blown out to sea, sparking a months-long search that received intense media coverage until its eventual recovery. The three other bombs caught landward air currents and punched down into sandy soil in and around a small fishing and farming village called Palomares. Publicity related to the three bombs that landed there was far more limited—and, if the Air Force had had its way, there would have been no publicity at all.

The nuclear warheads did not explode thanks to a fail-safe mechanism in the detonation system. But while the detonators were engineered to avoid igniting the nuclear device during an accidental bomb release, they still sparked a conventional explosion that ruptured the outer casings of two of the bombs. Clouds of plutonium gas were released, which soon aerosolized as particulates, creating a toxic dust carrying alpha-emitting radiation that spread over Palomares and surrounding areas.

While alpha particles will not penetrate the outer layer of human skin—or even travel through a sheet of paper—when inhaled or swallowed, they take up residence in the body and release an ongoing multi-year cascade of radioactivity. Over time, this inflicts cellular damage that can eventually manifest as cancer and other debilitating illnesses.

A Broken Arrow

In January 1966 retired Air Force Chief MSG Victor Skaar was a 29-year-old Air Force medic stationed at Moron Air Base, some 200 miles west of Palomares. He was among the first Air Force personnel to be dispatched to the coastal village. “At first we didn’t know where we were going or why,” said Skaar, a VVA Life Member who is now 83. “In due course we learned we had a broken arrow. But for a while that’s all we knew.” (In military jargon, any accident involving the accidental compromise or loss of a nuclear device is a “broken arrow.”)

Skaar was in Palomares for 62 days and worked almost every aspect of the emergency response: the initial search for the bombs, the radiation survey of the village and surrounding areas, the health screenings of Air Force personnel and Spanish citizens, and the decontamination efforts. Skaar kept detailed notes of his time in Palomares, which he still has, along with all his official daily activity reports.

“Command wanted to keep it all quiet,” said Skaar. “They wanted to avoid alarming our troops as well as the locals. Not to mention keeping it out of the press. Which at the time and given the situation was not unreasonable.” Declassified Air Force documents confirm this policy. A memo from February 1966 noted that “it would seem preferable to go back to normality as soon as possible, and thus hasten the departure of this subject from the public mind.”

To achieve this, however, required a sizeable emergency response team—which did not exist. To staff the team many young airmen serving at Moron Air Base were pulled randomly from jobs unrelated to health, medical care, or radiation decontamination. After an hours-long bus ride on narrow Spanish roads, job instructions were delivered in just a few minutes. The airmen were told they were in no danger. No protective gear was issued beyond surgical masks, which had no actual protective capacities.

When Vic Skaar retired from the Air Force in 1981 his exit physical revealed a blood cell count that was lower than expected. A few months later, working at the Clark County, Nevada, Health Department, he was turned down for blood donation due to the same concern. He told his boss, who happened to be the County Health Officer. Soon enough, Skaar underwent monthly blood monitoring that confirmed chronically low cell counts. A chest X-ray revealed a small spot on one of his lungs. Quickly suspecting radiation exposure as the cause, Skaar assembled his medical documentation and submitted his first claim for VA medical benefits.

Claims Denied

After a two-year wait he received the decision: denied. It seemed his military medical records were “unavailable.” Any radiation exposure during his time in service “could not be corroborated.” Skaar appealed the decision. After another long wait he received the same decision for the same reason. He then had a full medical evaluation conducted by a civilian physician, who concluded the most likely cause for Skaar’s condition was radiation exposure. Skaar applied for VA benefits using the doctor’s evaluation as support. The VA denied the claim, once again falling back on the “no available records” mantra.

“I knew different, of course,” said Skaar. “I helped create those records. Sealing them was understandable at the time. But I was applying for benefits long past the point where those records needed to remain under seal.” It would turn out that Skaar’s medical file was indeed available, but it took a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the Secretary of the Air Force to win release of those records.

Through the course of his many claims and denials, Vic Skaar studied the Air Force’s method of calculating radiation doses at Palomares. “It was wrong,” he said. “The math didn’t work.” His position was supported when an article appeared in The New York Times in June 2016 headlined, “Decades Later, Sickness Among Airmen After a Hydrogen Bomb Accident.” Investigative journalist Dave Phillips, fueled by the declassification of a trove of Air Force documents and interviews with many Palomares vets including Vic Skaar, told the disturbing story of the Palomares veterans’ long history of claims denied.

The declassified documents revealed that radiation detected around the bombs was in fact significantly elevated, and testing of airmen working nearby pointed to marked plutonium contamination. The Air Force, however, disregarded these results, calling them “unrealistic.” The Air Force has continued to maintain, for more than 50 years, that there was no harmful radiation at Palomares, that contamination risks were slight, and that all safety precautions were observed.

Vic Skaar recalled otherwise. “Protective clothing and gear? Correct procedures? There was no time for any of that. Besides, we were critically under-supplied. We only had five radiation detectors, and they kept breaking down. But despite our limitations we were under enormous pressure to act quickly.”

Skaar said the emergency response team did “incredible work,” but government denials of on-the-ground realities at Palomares “have done a great disservice to the veterans who served there. As far as the Air Force and the VA are concerned, we Palomares vets simply don’t exist.”

When Yale University law students working with the law school’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic (VLSC) saw the report in The New York Times, they wondered if a formal legal challenge might be a better way to address the dead ends that Skaar and his fellow veterans faced. “One day I got a call,” Skaar said. “It was a young lady who said she was from the Yale Law School. She said they wanted to help on the Palomares situation. I thought at first it was bogus or some kind of scam. But she called back with her supervisor on the line and I realized they were for real. And they’ve been a godsend.”

An Unprecedented Decision

Representing Skaar, VVA, and the VVA Connecticut State Council, the Yale VLSC filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Air Force in March 2017. When the Air Force failed to respond within the mandated time period, the VLSC went to U.S. District Court in Connecticut, asking the Court to order the release of records. The court did so. In due course the records were received, confirming what Vic Skaar had maintained for decades: The radiation dose technique used by the Air Force and later by VA was, in fact, flawed. Yet it was this very technique that served as the basis for decades of denied claims.

In December 2017 the VLSC filed a motion for class certification on behalf of all Palomares veterans before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC). Class certification would include “all veterans present at any point during the cleanup of plutonium dust at Palomares whose application for service-connected disability compensation based on exposure to ionizing radiation the VA has denied or will deny.”

The case moved slowly, with many months of negotiations between the VLSC team, the CAVC, the Air Force, and VA. When the CAVC’s decision came on December 6, 2019, it was widely heralded as unprecedented. In a decision called “groundbreaking” in many media reports, the CAVC granted class status to the approximately 1,600 Palomares veterans.

This is the first class action certified in the history of the CAVC based on a direct appeal from within the VA benefits system.

VVA President John Rowan emphasized the significance of the court’s action. “VVA has long fought for the VA to recognize and compensate toxic wounds,” he said. “VVA is proud to stand with veterans of the Palomares nuclear disaster, and we are excited to see that the Court allowed these veterans to fight together to get the health care and benefits they earned as a result of their service.”

Still Work to Do

While the class action victory is a momentous step forward for Palomares vets, there is still much work to do. The Yale legal team must argue that the original method for estimating radiation doses at Palomares is flawed. If the CAVC agrees, the Court will order VA to stop using the old method and reassess with a technique that better reflects the considerable advances in radiation science that have occurred in the last 50 years. Then VA must individually notify all class members that their cases will be reviewed using a new dose estimate methodology, a process that undoubtedly will be protracted.

In the meantime, the Yale team is negotiating with VA about how to manage the notification process. The Court has not yet approved the “means of notice”—the plan to get the word out to surviving Palomares veterans.

The Yale team also asked the Court to order VA to ask the Air Force for a complete list of Palomares veterans. “We know such a list exists,” Skaar said, “because we have a redacted version.” But the VA has refused to ask for the list, claiming that doing so is outside its responsibility. If the CAVC orders VA to request the list, an effort can be made to track down veterans through direct outreach.

Skaar is well aware how challenging this will be. “We’ll have names and addresses from when these men left the Air Force. For many that’ll be in the 1960s. We’ll hit some dead ends. We already have,” he said, noting that he sent letters announcing the class-action decision to the names on his partial list in December. Many came back as addressee unknown, no forwarding address, or deceased. In a few cases there was a reply—from a widow.

The exposure of American airmen to potentially damaging radiation at Palomares mirrors far too many similar cases of service-related toxic exposures that have been minimized—if not fully ignored—as benefit claims are denied year after year. The VA has been slow to recognize what it calls “military exposures,” but now acknowledges that such exposures are indeed associated with a broad range of health problems, many of which merit medical care and disability benefits. Last June, several veterans service organizations and advocacy groups, including VVA and the Wounded Warrior Project, established the Toxic Exposures in the American Military Coalition to monitor exposure-related illnesses in veterans and to push for faster and better responses from the VA.

“It’s been a long road,” said Vic Skaar, but he remains resolute. “My purpose is not to seek benefits just for myself, but to reach out to the people who were there with me, on the ground, doing what I was doing,” he said. “We have all been utterly ignored by the Air Force and the VA since 1966. I’ll continue this fight, hopefully now alongside some of my fellow Palomares vets. I want these men who worked so hard under great duress to be recognized. And if they have medical problems, I want them to get the assistance they need and deserve. They earned it.”





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