The Vela Incident; why radioactive sheep matter.

For he who grew up tall and proud,
In the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
Convinced our voices can’t be heard,
We just wanna scream it louder and louder

Queen- Hammer to Fall.

Hi all just a quick blog between podcast episodes today. Before I jump into this topic I do feel I need to say the following – I know we have some younger readers who perhaps are too young to have experienced the existential dread some of us would have, around the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Yes, it is fair to say many of us have held our breath in recent years when a regional conflict between nuclear armed India and Pakistan looked like it could degrade into their fifth war with each other since 1947- and their first since they both acquired the bomb. Similarly, recent geo-political posturing from North Korea will have kept some awake at night, and no doubt, were you to wind the clock back to January 2003 – sixteen words from then US president George W Bush would have had some breaking out in a cold sweat, not least of all the public intellectual Christopher Hitchens – who pulled, for me, one of the saddest ‘heel turns’ I’ve personally witnessed – birthing Hitch the neocon.

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”


On the back of this claim the US coalition of the willing invaded Iraq, only to find they had not bought yellowcake uranium from Niger after all. Digression aside, there was a time when mutually assured destruction was as terrifying to the masses as anthropogenic global warming is- and should be I should add- in 2020. I don’t think we have as a whole the same dread of the mushroom cloud as we did a generation ago. Given the way the following tale plays out, it really is remarkable how small a wave the following tale caused.
OK, let’s discuss the Vela Incident.


Our tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, somewhere just off the coast of Bouvet Island – a windswept, icy, completely inhospitable and therefore, uninhabited sub-Antarctic island – belonging to the Norwegians of all people. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head why Norway annexed Bouvet island in 1927, but I can tell you if you head due south from Oslo nearly as far as Antarctica you would be staring at the high, rocky cliffs of the island. Bouvet Island is officially the most remote place on Earth, close to 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade routes, and slightly further than that to inhabited land – South Africa and Tristan De Cuhna to the North, Antarctica to the South. In short, apart from the occasional check in on Norwegian weather stations, it really was no-one’s business being out there. Right on the witching hour on the 22nd, while the good folk of Norway – and by implication almost everyone else in that line of longitude were asleep, a massive double flash was detected from the direction of the island.


Now the reason we know there was a flash is that in 1963 most of the world agreed to a partial nuclear test ban, which stopped signatories from testing nuclear bombs above ground, in space or underwater. You could, and a number of countries did, test them by digging a very deep hole in the ground then igniting. One of the ways in which this ban was to be enforced was to launch a series of satellites equipped to monitor for nuclear activity – which included looking for the unique – and I mean unique, nothing else observed in nature has a fingerprint just like it – double flash of an above ground nuclear explosion. In the wee small hours Vela satellite 6911 spotted the flash. It was not the only way in which the incident was detected however. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast a very fast moving ionospheric disturbance (think something akin to the plasma beam launched by the sun in a coronal mass ejection – see the article on the Carrington event. ) was detected. One of the US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, picked up the heavy thud from the incident. The sound registered as far out as SOSUS devices off the coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada. For a time unusual levels of radiation, iodine 131, began to show up in the thyroids of Australian sheep – close to 10,000 kilometres to the east of the island. This all came out of the blue, and no-one was owning up to the incident. You might imagine this caused quite a panic among US intelligence – who deployed teams of intelligence officers and scientists to find out just what had happened. You might also be unsurprised to read the White House claimed the incident was a false reading, and classified most of the documents. We do however get a glimpse at what may have happened, via declassified documents available at former president Jimmy Carter’s presidential library- the president made notes, which have been declassified.

One of the Vela satellites.

The first thing we find is the data from Vela 6911 is not infallible – the satellite was 10 years old at that point and perhaps not as well calibrated as one might hope. The satellite in question should have been retired two years earlier. When scientists approached the suspected scene of the crime, radiation was not at the levels they expected to find either. The experts stated someone had tested a nuclear weapon in the area, but could not 100% preclude something else.
As to who could have been responsible? Well today we are aware of nine countries with a cache of nuclear arms – the USA, United Kingdom, Russia (the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons when the Iron Curtain fell a decade after this tale, but handed the weapons over to Russia), China, India, Pakistan, France, North Korea (who did not have nuclear weapons at the time) and Israel. A few other countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to a number of nuclear warheads for NATO also. Now two things I should point out – first Israel have never owned up to having a cache of nuclear weapons. A little more on this in a second. Second, South Africa were a part of this club too- officially not at the time- but definitely from the early 1980s, dismantling their weapons in 1991. From as early as 1961 South Africa began secretly enriching uranium (they have their own deposits) and in 1977 they built a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country, up by Namibia and Botswana. Now before you say it must have been them, let’s throw a spanner in the works.

In 1977-78 it is now known South Africa were working in concert with Israel. We know they swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel for thirty grams of tritium gas – an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen, which, though in of itself is relatively harmless (unless ingested) is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, or can be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor.
Now, my best guess is while it is tempting to point the finger at South Africa, I don’t believe you could point the finger solely at them. They did have a partnership with Israel at the time, and if it were just them – well they were on the outs with most of the Western nations at the time due to the horrors of their apartheid regime. They were pariahs, and all the more dangerous due to the level of connection to communist organisations in the black resistance groups at the time. If Israel were also involved, on the other hand – well, Jimmy Carter had only just completed brokering a peace deal between Israel and Egypt in 1978 at the Camp David peace accords – putting a stop to a long running feud between Israel and her neighbours (well not Palestine). To find they had been secretly building weapons of mass destruction would have upset the apple cart in a big way. This is purely speculation, but not just my speculation – and this would make sense. If absolutely nothing else it would have undone President Carter’s legacy. As it was his work at the Camp David peace accords would make up a major component in his Nobel peace prize in 2002 (if you are wondering, 1979’s prize went to Christopher Hitchens’ arch enemy Mother Teresa. In her acceptance speech she claimed the biggest threat in the world was the right to an abortion – in the year a mysterious, unidentified power covertly tested a nuclear weapon in the most remote place on Earth).

This week’s tale…. well it is recent history. Most of the documents are still classified. The jury is still out. Do we know what happened? Not definitively. Should we worry more about nuclear Armageddon? As much as I want to say no, something about radioactive sheep 10,000 kilometres away, almost in my own back yard from just one bomb… It makes me a little wary.
See you all next week for the latest podcast episode – Simone.

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