Social panic is a great excuse, a subterfuge used by cowards to avoid disclosing sensitive information. Data that, if known, rather than generating collective fear, would help to save lives.
From Saturday, November 7, 1970 onwards, one of these informative censorships spread, as much or more than the trail of harmful radioactive isotopes that leaked into the sewage system from the Centro Nacional de Energía Nuclear, located in the current Ciudad Universitaria of Madrid, belonging to the Junta de Energía Nuclear (JEN), then engaged in the confidential Islero project whose objective was to manufacture an atomic bomb behind the international community’s back. Due to negligence, it is estimated that between 40 and 80 liters of radioactive waste composed of strontium-90, cesium-137, ruthenium-106 and plutonium, ended up leaking from the site.
From the sewage system, the contaminants passed into the Manzanares, Jarama, and Tajo rivers. Amounts 75,000 times higher than those permitted were recorded in water and soil samples from the areas closest to the source of the seepage. It is needless to say that the irrigation canals, crop fields and, surely, the urban water supply fed by these rivers received their fair share of radioactive residues.
Franco’s administration kept everything under wraps. Confidentially, agricultural technicians were sent to collect and confiscate the contaminated soil from nearby crops to the astonishment of the farm workers, who were stunned at not knowing what was happening. According to the official version, experiments were being carried out with a new type of feed or a diesel leak was contaminating the fields. The “clean-up” work was characterized by slowness and laziness, to the point that the first JEN report would not be published until two months later, a period in which the population did continue to unknowingly ingest contaminated water and food.
The extent of the damage to the health of the population is unknown due to the lack of an epidemiological study, which was never carried out. Much of the sludge and contaminated soils removed were buried mostly in Cordoba, although part of it was hidden in clandestine ditches bordering, for example, the Jarama canal (a procedure known as “Tajo Operation”) or under Ciudad Universitaria. The effectiveness of the control and management of these areas remains questionable to this day, even though the authorities try to reassure that they are harmless. Likewise, there are still several documents to be declassified, which are essential to obtain a broad and detailed view of what really happened and the extent of the damage.
The radioactive currents reached Portugal through the Tajo River, leaving a trail of dead. Authorities detected high levels of radioactivity at the mouth of the river. Like Franco, dictator Salazar also tried to hide the disaster from public opinion.
Planelles, M. (2018). Los márgenes del Jarama esconden desde 1970 restos de un escape radiactivo clandestino. El País [online] September 15, available in: https://elpais.com/sociedad/2018/09/15/actualidad/1537017298_346043.html
Redacción (1994). Los informes secretos del accidente nuclear de Madrid. El País [online] October 24, available in: https://elpais.com/diario/1994/10/24/sociedad/782953223_850215.html
Wikipedia (2021). Escape radiactivo de la Junta de Energía Nuclear de 1970. Available in: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_radiactivo_de_la_Junta_de_Energ%C3%ADa_Nuclear_de_1970