the psychedelic project of Francoist Spain to make its own atomic bomb

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“The defense of Spain should not be left in the hands of the US or NATO, although in the future we could join this organization. Spain needs its own nuclear deterrent force”. reflection is of Manuel Diez-Alegriachief of the High General Staff between 1970 and 1974, and demonstrates to what extent Franco’s Spain came to consider and even broke its horns for accessing one of the most select, influential and, of course, conflictive clubs in the international politics of the second half of the XX: that of the nations with nuclear power, equipped with atomic bombs.

Even a CIA report of 1974 pointed to Spain as “the only European country with interest and capacity” to follow in the footsteps of the USA itself, the USSR or those given in their day by France and the United Kingdom to manufacture a nuclear device and achieve a new status in the world. geopolitical board.

Spain caressed the atomic dream.

He chased after him in a grueling decades-long dance, replete with back and forth steps.

He came to complicate the sleep of more than one Washington official.

And, with them, it ended up vanishing.

The big question, almost six decades later, is: Why did Francisco Franco want an atomic bomb? How close did you come to achieving it? And why was the project abandoned?

Palomares H Bomb Incident

B28RI nuclear bomb recovered after the Palomares incident

The dictatorship’s flirtations with nuclear bombs date back to the 1960s, when the then vice president and government heavyweight, Agustin Munoz Grandescommissioned José María Otero Navascués, president of the Nuclear Energy Board (JEN), to prepare a study on the feasibility of the country developing a weapon “made in Spain”. The task would end up on the table of a man trusted by the Executive and solidly trained, William VelardeAir Force soldier, physicist, academic and who had even studied nuclear physics in the United States.

The assignment was so tricky, so complex, that in a gesture with a very clear traditional smell that reflects well the spirit with which he assumed it, Velarde decided to baptize that task as Proyecto Islero, the same name of the Miura that years before had ended his life of manolete the bullring of Linares. “I felt that would end up killing me with disgust”, He would confess later.

It would not go so far, but the path to reach the nuclear weapons whims that Velarde had to travel over the following years was anything but simple.

The soldier devoted himself body and soul to the search for the best way for Franco’s Spain to provide itself with nuclear weapons. The challenge was brought them and it was double, actually: there was the design and manufacture of the atomic bomb, of course; but also the construction of a reactor, its fuel elements and the extraction plant. Another crucial question that they had to clarify before getting down to business was what materials to use. Plutonium or uranium?

When the USSR extinguished a gas well that had been on fire for almost three years with the most insane of tools: a nuclear bomb

Either option had pros and cons. Spain has, for example, uranium ore reserves, but enriching it required complex, costly work that could hardly escape the radar of international control, one of the priorities of the Francoist Executive, which wanted the island project took place in the utmost secrecy. With all these cons in the balance, the uranium option ended up being discarded and the controls ended up opting for plutonium.

By the end of 1964 Velarde already had his report and copies were distributed among the main bosses of the regime, including Franco himself and the ministers Munoz Grandes Y Gregorio Lopez Bravo. However, it is one thing to have an intuition of where to start and another to know it for sure and make the decision to put all the meat on the grill and embark on the adventure.

Maintaining Velarde’s own bullfighting metaphor, Islero returned to the stables.

It was in limbo for around a year until, at the beginning of 1966, a shock in the form of a bomb fell from the sky, activating the project. And literally, too. The Palomares Incidentwhich settled with four thermonuclear bombs of the United States rushing onto Spanish soil and left an imprint on the retina of several generations the image of Manuel Fraga in a swimsuit, helped revitalize the project. Overnight, Velarde and the other patriotic experts saw a fabulous opportunity to closely examine American artifacts.

Trinity Detonation TB

Detonation of a nuclear weapon in the framework of the Manhattan Project.

Velarde certainly knew how to take advantage of the opportunity. In Palomares, he discovered a kind of “black stones” that allowed him to unravel the explosion mechanism of hydrogen bombs, the Ullam–Teller configurationone of the great secrets of the Cold War.

Neither that revelation nor Velarde’s confidence in the JEN would be of much use to the Islero Project. Before the end of 1966, Franco himself met with the physicist and ordered him to put the brakes on indefinitely. His fear: that those nuclear plans that Spain was trying carry secretwithout raising the international hare, would set off the alarms of the US and bring about new sanctions that, yes, would deal a coup de grâce to the weak Spanish economy.

As if the fear of international reprisals were not enough, there was also the exorbitant cost of the nuclear programme, a drain of around 60,000 million pesetas which reinforced the mistrust with which some heavyweights of the Franco regime, such as López Bravo, viewed him.

The dictator’s veto, yes, was not total. Franco made two decisions that show that he was not willing to shelve the atomic aspirations of Spain He decided not to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allowed the investigations to continue, separate, yes, from the Armed Forces—; but his decision was in any case a setback for Velarde.

In the midst of the war against Hitler, the US had a crazy idea: launch missiles piloted by pigeons

The project would be taken out of the drawer several years later, in 1971, when Díez Alegría commissioned the physicist to resume it with a clear urgency: “Spain needs its own nuclear deterrent force”. In his peculiar dance of steps forwards and backwards, Islero received an accolade again in mid-1973 with the rise to the presidency of the Government of Carrero Blanco, defender of the project.

How serious Spain’s claims were is shown by the fact that the CIA itself labeled it as Europe’s nuclear “possible proliferator”: “It has indigenous medium-sized uranium reserves and an extensive long-range nuclear power program — three reactors in operation, seven under construction, plus 17 planned — and a pilot chemical separation plant” . The idea was that the plutonium needed for the bombs would be produced discreetly. in Vandellos.

By the end of 1973, Velarde was convinced that Spain was ready to manufacture three plutonium bombs a year and Carrero Blanco himself came to present the results to the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissingerwith whom he had a meeting the day before ETA attack that ended his life. A year later his successor, Arias Navarro, breathed new life into the project with the aim of achieving an arsenal of 36 20 kiloton fission bombs.

Even then things didn’t get off the ground.

1366 2000

After several years with the project lurching between the different administrations and with Franco already buried, in 1981, the Calvo-Sotelo government it accepted the application of IAEA safeguards and at the end of that same decade, in 1987, the socialist government signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and definitively shelved Spain’s atomic claims.

The million dollar question at this point is:Why did you want Spain have its own atomic bomb? The answer lies in the geopolitical table itself of the second half of the 20th century. Spain had signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the US in 1955, but, as Díez-Alegría recognized, it aspired to have its own safeguard. With nuclear status, Spain might even win a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

As a backdrop was the Cold War and its international tensions, the arms race, the peculiar and strategic role that Spain played on the continent and, above all, the complicated relations with Morocco, independent since 1956 and whom Madrid wanted to dissuade from any territorial aspiration for its territories outside the peninsula like the Sahara.

Islero, however, stayed on paper.

And as one of the craziest weapon chapters of Francoist Spain.

Pictures | Wikipedia Y United States Department of Energy

“The defense of Spain should not be left in the hands of the US or NATO, although in the future…

“The defense of Spain should not be left in the hands of the US or NATO, although in the future…

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