The American Nuclear Coverup and a Rural Redlight District in Spain

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
John Howard, King's College London
If you’ve heard of Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island but are unfamiliar with Palomares, you might wonder why. All appear in Time magazine’s list of the world’s eleven “worst nuclear disasters.” Palomares moreover has been called the worst nuclear weapons accident in history. So why do so few people outside Spain know about it?

From 17 January 1966, cultural amnesia resulted first and foremost from US military censorship, lies, and distortions, which diverted attention away from the plutonium-contaminated town and fields. Second, journalists covering the tragedy, though late on the scene, rushed their books into print, replicating oversights of the rushed cleanup operation. Third, US diplomats used euphemism and doublespeak to understate the hardship for Spaniards (and thus minimize their compensation claims). Fourth, feature filmmakers made light of the plight of people in Palomares. From Pinewood to Hollywood, Palomares was depicted as a minor blip in the cultural life of Western democracy (and Spanish dictatorship), good for a laugh or, worse still, a lesson in American triumphalism.

This paper argues that official photography reproduced the official line. But documentary photography provides new interpretive possibilities. Navy images eclipsed Air Force photos, shifting the gaze from land to sea, averting eyes from the atrocity. (Of four wayward nukes, media were mesmerized by the harmless bomb 4 sea search, while shattered bombs 2 and 3 scattered their deadly debris.) After critiques of this archival imagery, the paper contextualizes new photographs from my own documentary project, which examines how—in a radioactive landscape of agricultural decline and population exodus—a rural sex industry has emerged, complicating liberationist calls to occupy liminal space.

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