this is how nuclear energy was promoted in Spain

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“Spain is the only European country that deserves our attention as a possible proliferator in the coming years. It has indigenous reserves of uranium of a medium size, and an extensive program of long-range nuclear energy (three reactors in operation, seven under construction, plus seventeen planned) and a pilot plant for chemical separation, ”explained a CIA report in the mid-1960s (declassified by States). United in January 2008, at the request of the National Security Archive George Washington University). But, above all, the Franco regime was determined to acquire weapons at any price that would restore its relevance at the international level.

Given the need to show itself as a relevant element in the Cold War and to persuade Morocco so that he would not consider appropriating Spanish territories in Africa, Francisco Franco made it a priority to acquire nuclear weapons.

All this step by step, with good handwriting … On October 22, 1951, the Nuclear Energy Board, chaired by Juan Vigón, as “research center, advisory body of the Government, institute in charge of safety and protection problems, against the danger of ionizing radiation and as a promoter of industrial development, related to the applications of nuclear energy” .

From failure to success

This first civilian step to boost energy was followed by other purely military steps in the heat of the Ifni crisis. Agustín Muñoz Grandes –falangist and very little friend of the United States– and White Carrero towed forward the so-called Islero Project, codename in honor of the bull that killed Manolete, to obtain nuclear weapons. The professor of Nuclear Physics and then Commander of the Air Force, Guillermo Velarde, was appointed head of the Reactor Theory and Calculation Division for this purpose.

«This project was, in the first moments, a real failure. The JEN specialists (all military) proved incapable both of building the bomb and of obtaining the plutonium necessary to manufacture it. In fact, in 1965, Franco, who was also very interested in the project, did not show great interest in its continuation “, explains Roberto Muñoz Bolaños, associate professor at the Camilo José Cela University, in his research ‘The Islero Project. The Spanish atomic bomb ‘. If the project continued in spite of everything, it was thanks to the insistence of Muñoz Grandes and Carrero Blanco, who always obtained economic and political resources for its financing.

As Muñoz Bolaños explains, the turning point in a long list of stumbling blocks took place on January 17, 1966, when a KC-135 tanker and a B-52 strategic bomber collided in the air over the airspace of Palomares (Almería ). The solution came from heaven. The bomber was carrying four 1.5-megaton Mark 28 (model B28RI) thermonuclear bombs, which fell on the area, three on land and one at sea. The Spanish technicians found remnants of the weapons and examined them carefully, which allowed them to restart the project with the available technology and soon, with indigenous atomic material.

Spanish plutonium

Since the 40s, the physicist José María Otero de Navascués he had proposed the use of nuclear energy as an alternative to oil. Although the Franco regime did not lack nuclear power plants as part of its plan (ten of 40 planned plants were finally built), the US strategy made Spain dependent on its cheap reactors and enriched uranium. The technology of enriching uranium was (in the Western world) unique to North America, and building an atomic bomb required 17 to 20 kilos of highly enriched uranium. In other words, a US permit was required to manufacture a bomb.

“I have considered the advantages for Spain to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, but I am convinced that, sooner or later, it would be practically impossible to keep it a secret”

With the United States taking over the shipment of this material, Spain chose the other option to assemble a bomb: six kilos of plutonium. The Spanish subsoil contained the second most important reserves of natural uranium in Europe (4,650 tons evaluated), the mineral from which plutonium is obtained, so this strategy offered a fast track for Spain to join the exclusive club of nuclear powers. Under this impulse, in 1968 the first nuclear fast reactor called Coral-1 was installed in the University City of Madrid, with the capacity to manufacture military plutonium. And four years later, the Vandellós (Tarragona) plant was put into operation, equipped with French technology, which also used this material as a source.

International circumstances, with the president of the Republic of FranceDe Gaulle, annoyed with the nuclear hegemony of the US and the USSR, were also favorable to the Islero project. Both the Gallic general and his successor at the head of the Presidency of the V Republic, Georges Pompidou, were in favor of Spain becoming an allied nuclear power of theirs.

The atomic bomb became totally viable, as Velarde himself recognized in 1971: “Spain can successfully implement the military nuclear option.” In an internal report signed by his working group, there was speculation about the preparations for a first nuclear test in the sahara desert, south of Smara, with an approximate cost of 8,700 million pesetas for each manufactured bomb.

Even the legal aspect was covered. The Franco regime had been careful to disassociate itself from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, originally signed by 19 countries. For the CIA analysts, Spain had refused to sign it because the commitments made by non-nuclear countries “were inadequate and required periodic inspections, which exposed their programs to their competitors.”

Franco expressly acknowledged Guillermo Velarde: «I have considered the advantages for Spain to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, but I am convinced that, sooner or later, it would be practically impossible to keep it a secret. Spain could not bear other economic sanctions, which is why I have decided to postpone the development of this project. I have no intention of signing the international agreement that is being prepared to ban the manufacture of nuclear weapons. ‘

Palomares (Almería).  1966. Thermonuclear pumps in Palomares.  Some neighbors observe the wreckage of the plane.
Palomares (Almería). 1966. Thermonuclear pumps in Palomares. Some neighbors observe the wreckage of the plane.

Effort and money, in vain

Despite the Herculean effort documented in Franco’s reports, there was never any evidence that the objective of having an operational pump was achieved during Franco’s regime. In addition to the atomic material, ballistic technology was required to drop the bomb. Self-propelled howitzers capable of carrying nuclear warheads and aircraft that with certain modifications can become vectors.

The death of Carrero Blanco In an attack by ETA a few meters from the US Embassy, ​​he deflated the project, which the arrival of Democracy ended up diluting. On March 12, 1985, the Prime Minister of Defense of the Government of Felipe González, Narcís Serra, declared before Congress: “We have not inherited any development or study to produce nuclear weapons, nor will this Government do them.” Demonstration of the relevance that reached the suspicion, true or not, that Francisco Franco had touched with the fingers of his hand the possibility of obtaining atomic weapons.

It would not be until 1987, when the US managed to get Spain to sign the treaty against nuclear weapons, a pact by which it promised to put aside investigations into this type of weapon.

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