In January 1966, an American B-52 Stratofortress collided with the tanker that was refueling it off the coast of Spain. This was something called Operation Chrome Dome, part of an eight-year effort to keep hydrogen bombs in the air at all times to teach the Soviet Union a thing or two.
Seven crew members were killed and four thermonuclear bombs — each with about seven times the power of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima during World War II — were lost. One landed in the sea, and it took 28 ships several weeks to find and retrieve it. The other three landed near the Spanish village of Palomares.
None of the bombs “went critical,” but the conventional explosives on two of them did go off, spreading plutonium dust. It was a big international incident, and about 1,600 Air Force personnel were sent to the crash site to recover the weapons and clean up the contamination. According to The Military Times, they were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation daily for weeks or months at a time. Some of those men later developed various forms of cancer, blood disorders, heart and lung dysfunction and other sicknesses.
In December 2017, one of the airmen involved in the cleanup, Victor Skaar, 84, who had developed a form of cancer, sued the Department of Veterans Affairs, which had never accepted that these guys might have a service-connected disability after being exposed to ionizing radiation without adequate protective gear, let alone knowledge of the risk they were taking.
Yale Law School students worked on the case, telling a federal appeals court that the exposure data used by the Air Force at the time — the basis for the denial of veterans’ benefits — was not scientifically valid.
Earlier this month, legislation was introduced in Congress, co-sponsored by Connecticut Democrats U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, that would finally designate the Palomares cleanup as a “radiation risk activity” and make Skaar and the others eligible for health benefits.
Skaar was encouraged by the news.
“I do not think we’re going to win in a court of law,” he told The Associated Press. “I think the only way we can win is in the court of public opinion.”
End of the story? Not quite. Similar bills have come up three times before, but never got out of committee.
Let’s hope for a different outcome this time. Those guys deserve no less.
And speaking of less, I’ve watched a few episodes of “The Twilight Zone” lately on Netflix. OK, it’s corny, but it’s amazing how many famous actors were in it — some already famous then and others who were granted stardom only later: William Shatner, Lee Marvin, Ed Wynn, Robert Redford, Agnes Moorehead, Donna Douglas, Andy Devine, Art Carney, John Carradine, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Weaver, Jack Warden, and on and on.
Anyway, I couldn’t help noticing that back in 1959 the networks gave you a full 25 minutes of show in a half-hour, with only one commercial break. Compare that to now, when the commercials come on and you have time to go to the bathroom, and whip up a snack in the kitchen, and when you plop back on the sofa they’re still running.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.