Blumenthal & Hayes Lead Legislation to Bring Relief to Veterans Harmed in Palomares Nuclear Disaster

The bill would ensure the more than 1,600 veterans exposed to plutonium while responding to the 1966 nuclear accident in Palomares, Spain get access to VA benefits & health care

[Washington, DC] – U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and U.S. Representative Jahana Hayes (D-CT) introduced the bicameral Palomares Veterans Act today to remove barriers to benefits and compensation for the veterans who responded to the 1966 nuclear accident in Palomares, Spain. Many of the 1,600 servicemembers were sent to the site without protective clothing or warning of potential dangers, and were subjected to dangerous levels of radiation.

The Palomares Veterans Act would amend current law to include the cleanup of Palomares as a “radiation risk activity.” This would provide Palomares veterans with disability compensation. As many Palomares veterans have passed away over the years, this legislation would also make surviving spouses and their children eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation – a tax-free monetary benefit paid to eligible survivors of veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease. This would ensure that Palomares veterans exposed to radiation during their service and their families are afforded the health care and benefits they need and deserve.

“This bill is urgently needed to bring long-overdue relief to Palomares veterans and their loved ones,” said Blumenthal. “The nuclear disaster in Palomares caused untold suffering and harm to the servicemembers sent in to clean up radioactive material without adequate protective gear or warning of severe health risks. Yet fifty-five years on, the VA still hasn’t recognized radiation risks at Palomares, cutting off benefits and health care for these deserving veterans. They are aging and this cannot wait any longer. We must honor their selfless sacrifice, and enact the Palomares Veterans Act as soon as possible.”

“Failing to recognize the sacrifice of Palomares veterans is a breach of our responsibility to service members and veterans. This critical, commonsense legislation works to address this issue. I remain committed to fighting for veterans suffering from all forms of toxic exposure, preventing generations of future veterans from the same fate, and ensuring all veterans have accessible and affordable health care,” said Hayes.

In January 1966, a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber collided with a U.S. Air Force KC-135 tanker aircraft over the Spanish village of Palomares, resulting in one of the largest nuclear disasters in history and causing radiation exposure in approximately 1,600 U.S. airmen who responded to the crash. These airmen were sent to respond to this nuclear accident with little to no protective clothing and were not warned of any potential dangers. They were ordered to clear contaminated crops, shovel tainted soil into burn pits, and consume the local water and food – placing them in direct contact with large amounts of plutonium. Declassified reports from the Atomic Energy Commission show more than 3 billion micrograms of plutonium were released following the crash. Even one microgram of plutonium is considered harmful to the human body—exposure to 3 billion micrograms of plutonium raises significant concerns of toxic exposure in Palomares veterans.

Many of the airmen who participated in the cleanup operation are suffering from health conditions that are likely the result of their close contact with radioactive plutonium dust. However, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not list Palomares as a radiation-risk activity under current regulations that presume that radiation-exposed veterans with certain conditions are entitled to disability benefits. The VA continues to rely on flawed methodology and data provided by the Air Force that assigns Palomares veterans radiation dose estimates too low to find that their conditions are more likely radiogenic than not. The Air Force’s methodology for assigning radiation exposure estimates after the cleanup operation did not follow scientific protocol and has been determined unreliable—grave errors this legislation seeks to correct.

In December 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims found that the VA had not fulfilled its legal responsibility to determine whether the method it uses to assess Palomares veterans’ radiation exposure is scientifically sound and demanded that the VA reexamine this policy. The lead appellant in the case is Retired Chief Master Sergeant Victor Skaar who argues the VA has unjustifiably excluded Palomares from its list of “radiation-risk activities,” and used scientifically unsound methodology to deny Skaar’s disability benefits claims based on exposure to ionizing radiation. Skaar is the lead appellant in a proposed class action of approximately 1,600 Palomares veterans and is represented by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.

“Palomares veterans, including Retired Chief Master Sergeant Victor Skaar, have been fighting for recognition from the VA and the military for their sacrifices for years. More than fifty years after the event, the Palomares Veterans Act will be a groundbreaking step forward in supporting these veterans and guaranteeing them recognition for their service. Senator Blumenthal has been a persistent advocate for these veterans over the years, and we are grateful for his dedication to improving the lives of Palomares veterans, their survivors, and our client, Mr. Skaar,” said Lauren Lin, Yale's Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

The bill has been endorsed by a number of veterans organizations, including the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV), Vietnam Veterans of America, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC), and Military Veterans Advocacy.

“NAAV is pleased Senator Blumenthal and Congresswoman Hayes are leading the mission to make sure the Palomares, Spain Broken Arrow cleanup veterans receive the healthcare they have earned though their valiant service to their country,” said NAAV National Commander Keith Kiefer.

“The veterans of the 1966 Palomares nuclear disaster have waited over half a century for recognition of their radiation-connected illnesses,” said US Air Force Veteran and Vietnam Veterans of America National President John Rowan. “Until now, their appeals to the VA have been in vain. Vietnam Veterans of America has fought for the VA to recognize and appropriately compensate and treat all wounds, disabilities, and illnesses resulting from military service – including toxic wounds caused by exposure to chemicals and radiation. VVA is proud to support Senator Blumenthal and Congresswoman Hayes in their introduction of the Palomares Veterans Act of 2021, and we urge swift passage of this important legislation which will allow Palomares veterans the long-overdue presumption of service connection for their radiogenic health conditions.”

The Senate legislation is also cosponsored by U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). The full text of the Senate legislation can be found here.

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