"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Two nuclear bombs, slightly dented

Earlier this week, I challenged readers to send me photos of their favorite museum exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. Over the next few days, I'll be posting some of these submissions, under the heading, "My Favorite Museum Exhibit". Want to see them all? Check the "Previously" links at the bottom of this post.

Mike Anderson sent in this photo from the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, NM. The museum is home to two (now de-weaponized) nuclear bombs. In 1966—back when these bombs were actually capable of exploding—the United States Air Force accidentally dropped them on Spain.

The accident happened when the plane carrying four of these Mk28 type hydrogen bombs collided with another plane during a mid-air fueling. One bomb fell into the ocean and was eventually recovered. The other three landed near the village of Palomares in southern Spain. Two of the bombs actually detonated—sort of. Only the non-nuclear explosives went off, turning them into what we'd call "dirty bombs" today. Some 650 acres, a little more than a square mile of farmland and rural communities, were contaminated. The U.S. military ended up excavating 1,400 tons of soil from this area and shipping it to the United States for disposal.

You can read an oral history of the cleanup effort. The Brookings Institution has more detail on exactly what happened during the accident and its aftermath.

Previously in this series:


  1. In “Back from the Front” the 3 stooges were merchant marines when a torpedo hit below deck and pierced the hull. They looked down at it and decided it was a whale, and that they should kill it, so starting hitting it on the “head” with hammers. The whole ship exploded, but fortunately they werent injured at all- ended up on a raft.

    1. Yep, you pretty much summed up the story behind this article.  Of course, this does a good job of it too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlSQAZEp3PA

  2. I dragged my family to every nuclear exhibit in New Mexico a few years ago. This was one highlight. I had heard about the “incident” in Spain, but had no idea that I could see the actual bomb casings that fell out of the plane.

    If you go to White Sands Missile Range, you can climb over dozens of different US missiles from the old days. They’re all set up in a big playground. At least that’s how we saw it.

  3. The book I read as a lad called “The Bombs of Palomares” by  Tad Szulc.  Discussed the search and methods that they developed to find the bombs.  They used some of the same techniques (Wagering on a location) to find downed submarines like Scorpion and Thresher in deep water.

  4. I recall seeing & touching a decomissioned nuclear bomb at the Strategic Air Command museum in Nebraska,  roughly 20 years ago.   There’s no mention of such an exhibit on the current website..     In my memory, it was a blocky cylinder about 2 meters diameter, and maybe 4 meters long.  Not entirely unlike the B53 that we’ve finally retired.    

    Does anyone else recall such a thing? Certainly one of the spookier things I’ve ever touched.

    1. Go to the Albuquerque museum to see lots and lots of atomic bombs – you might recognize it.

      The spookiest thing I’ve touched was when I visited the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s back lot while they were restoring the Enola Gay. I got to stick my head inside it.

  5. This seems perfect for an alternate history novel in which we accidentally nuked Spain.  T.C. Boyle, perhaps?

  6. I went there years ago during a cross country road trip with my wife. It was awesome. We also were able to pick up Fat Man an Little Boy earings(which my wife made into charms) and shot glasses.

    1. Yeah- the resale value really takes a nosedive.  You can always slap on some Bondo, but it’s just never quite the same.  Any savvy 3rd-world dictator is going to spot the repair from 20 feet away; it makes it hard to negotiate a decent price.

  7. I got to see this exhibit on a trip to NM this past December. The casing on the left is the one that fell into the sea, and only has minor denting. The one on the right had a parachute deploy before it hit the ground. The parachutes failed on the two that exploded on impact.

    1. It takes about half a second for a fission bomb to fire properly, so the bombs which crashed without their parachutes would presumably never have fired properly. Thats a bummer of a failure mode.

      1. If the bombs had been armed, and set for air-burst detonation, they would have been triggered before impact at a certain altitude. The parachute is largely to give the bomber time to clear the blast zone on a medium- or low-level delivery. (But, yes, the bomber crew would think of it as a bummer of a failure mode, at least briefly.)

  8. Here in Spain everybody knows the story of the Palomares nuclear bombs! 

    Palomares is actually still contaminated. The US government struck a deal a year ago with the Spanish government in order to clean the area…

  9. This is the textbook definition, with pictures, of Broken Arrow, and never mind disco dancin’ scientologists.

  10. Anyone else seen that Cliff Richard/Shadows film Finders Keepers (strap line: The beat is the wildest! The blast is the craziest! … and the fun is where you find it!) based on the Palomares incident?
    Cliff and the lads turn up to play a gig in Spain only to find someone has accidentally dropped an A bomb and the area is crawling with spooks and spies trying to find it, with hilarious consequences.
    Details are hazy as I saw it when I was eleven, I do remember a song about paella.

  11. Actually there were 5, but they never found the fifth one.  But it was found years and years later by a farmer and his son who dug it up and sold it to some guy who gave it to a crazy Russian extremist who was trying to start a war with the US and they took out all the nuclear bits and snuck it into a soda machine and blew up the SuperBowl…
    Oh, wait…that was a Tom Clancy book.  Or was it a movie?

  12. I worked on the CURV which is the Navy Cable Controlled deep submergence Recovery Vehicle that ultimately recovered the bomb that fell into the med. It was a long, hard effort that finally paid off in success. The bomb was initially on an underwater slope at 2,000 feet. Alvin attempted a retrieval but only knocked the bomb another 750 feet deeper which then exceeded our operational depth and forced us to drill holes to flood structural components, like the frame, which could have possibly imploded. We made the recovery by intentionally tangling the bomb’s parachute shrouds in CURV’s body and propulsion system then hosting the vehicle aboard by hand.  Frogmen hit the water as soon as the bomb as soon as it became visible.  It was a big deal at the time.

  13. “and shipping it to the United States”. Am I the only one concerned that 2 out of every 3 articles I read have glaring grammatical errors? I think its a sign of the end of… well something.

  14. They did not have drones or effective seal teams to take people out, so they dropped nuclear bombs designed to be dirty to cover up operation.   The bodies were shipped with 1400 tons of soil.   Do you really think they would accidently drop four nukes on Spain?   What you can see is true, but what you can not see is more true!

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