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Veterans exposed to a 1960s nuclear disaster could finally get disability benefits, thanks to a Yale lawsuit

Aboard USS Petrel off the coast of Spain, 1966; NOTS crew after successful recovery of "Robert" the H-Bomb.
United States Navy
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Aboard USS Petrel off the coast of Spain, 1966; NOTS crew after successful recovery of "Robert" the H-Bomb.

Military veterans who helped clean up the nuclear disaster in Palomares, Spain, over five decades ago may finally be able to get Veterans Affairs benefits. Yale's Veterans Legal Services Clinic is suing the VA on behalf of sick veterans who served in Palomares.

An Air Force bomber carrying nuclear warheads crashed into a refueling tanker over Spain in 1966. About 1,500 U.S. service members helped clean up the contamination, without protective gear. Many developed diseases linked to radiation exposure, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has denied their disability claims.

“The Palomares nuclear disaster was one of the worst nuclear disasters in world history and certainly in American history, and yet the VA has not recognized it as being a radiation exposure event which is pretty shocking,” said Sarah Purtill, a Yale intern who is working on the case.

The VA had determined that veterans at Palomares weren't exposed to sufficient radiation to cause their illnesses, but Purtill said that’s based on faulty radiation samples.

Andrew Smith, another Yale intern who’s working on the case, said veterans’ claims will move faster if the court allows them to sue as a class.

“Rather than having to fight these battles one at a time, if the board is empowered to grant these classes that will help speed things along and unjam a system that has, pretty historically, been slow,” Smith said.