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Flash from the past: Why an apparent Israeli nuclear test in 1979 matters today via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

At a time when the Iran agreement is in the headlines and other Middle Eastern countries—notably Saudi Arabia—are making noises about establishing their own programs for nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, it is worth giving renewed scrutiny to an event that occurred 36 years ago: a likely Israeli-South African nuclear test over the ocean between the southern part of Africa and the Antarctic. Sometimes referred to in the popular press as the “Vela Incident” or the “Vela Event of 1979,” the circumstantial and scientific evidence for a nuclear test is compelling but as long as many items related to the test are still classified, all the questions surrounding it cannot be resolved definitively. Those questions allow wiggle room for some observers (a shrinking number) to still doubt whether the event was of nuclear origin. But more and more information revealed in various publications over the years strongly supports the premise that a mysterious double flash detected by a US satellite in 1979 was indeed a nuclear test performed by Israel with South African cooperation, in violation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty. The US government, however, found it expedient to brush important evidence under the carpet and pretend the test did not occur.

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This cover-up is all the more troubling because it runs contrary to President Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009, in which he stated: “To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.” Later, in the same speech, he said: “We go forward with no illusions. Some will break the rules, but that is we need a structure in place that ensures that when any nation does, they will face consequences.”

Yet Israel and South Africa broke the rules, but they did not face consequences. All of this is more than “ancient history;” there is no statute of limitations on nuclear arms agreement violations.

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What happened. On September 22, 1979, a US satellite code-named Vela 6911, which was designed to look for clandestine atmospheric nuclear tests and had been in operation for more than 10 years, recorded a double flash in an area where the South Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean, off the coast of South Africa. The detection immediately triggered a series of steps in which analysts at national labs in the United States informed their superiors that the recorded signal had all the earmarks of a nuclear test. (Some details about exactly what the analysts did has been written about in Jeffrey Richelson’s 2007 book, Spying on the Bomb.) The event has been a subject of controversy ever since, but is now recognized by most analysts as the detection of an Israeli nuclear test with South African logistical cooperation.

The Air Force Technical Analysis Center gave the event the formal designation of Alert (A) 747. Shortly afterward, President Jimmy Carter and his national security team were informed. In his diary entry of September 22, later published in 2010 as White House Diary, the former president wrote, “There was indication of a nuclear explosion in the region of South Africa—either South Africa, Israel using a ship at sea, or nothing.”

Already, a process of elimination based on intelligence information had quickly narrowed the possible perpetrators to two: South Africa and Israel. An effort was immediately launched to seek corroborative evidence. No radioactive fallout was detected, but hydro-acoustic and wave data collected by ocean sensors and later analyzed by the Naval Research Laboratory showed that an unusual and unmistakable event had taken place. In addition, a new, highly sensitive radio-telescope at the Arecibo Laboratory—home of the world’s largest single radio-telescope—reported the detection of an anomalous ionospheric travelling wave at about the same time as the Vela recordings. “Almost certainly, there was a large influx of energy somewhere over South Africa at about the time the Vela satellite saw its flash,” concluded Arecibo physicist Richard Behnke.

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The Ruina panel. Finding a credible alternative, if possible, to the prevailing scientific consensus already formed within the national labs that a test had occurred required time and a broadening of the range of scientific opinion. Both requirements were met by the expedient of creating an eight-member, blue-ribbon scientific panel to review the data and the reports collected up to that point. Spurgeon Keeny—then the deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency—told me in an interview on July 30, 2004 that the idea for the outside panel was his. (Although the panel was to officially take its mandate from and report to Frank Press, the president’s science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.)

The panel contained a Nobel Prize-winner, Luis Alvarez, and seven other notable scientists, including Richard Garwin—who had been deeply involved in national security scientific affairs and would become one of the most active panel members. The designated chair was Jack Ruina, a well-connected professor of electrical engineering at MIT and a friend of Press. Ruina became the public face of the panel, although the panel would never hold a public hearing of any kind. The Ruina panel began work on November 1, 1979, five days after Carter wrote in his diary: “At the foreign affairs breakfast we went over the South Africa nuclear explosion, we still don’t know who did it.” Carter kept receiving briefings on the Vela event as the Ruina panel performed its task, and, referring to the prevailing opinion at the national labs, on February 27, 1980 he wrote in his diary: “We have a growing belief among our scientists that the Israelis did indeed conduct a nuclear test explosion in the ocean near the southern end of South Africa.” Nonetheless, the Ruina panel issued a classified report in the spring of 1980, concluding that the Vela event was likely not a nuclear event, although they could not rule out a nuclear explosion. (An unclassified version was released in May that same year.)

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The curious case of Ruina’s Israeli post-graduate student. After the Ruina panel closed up shop, Ruina continued to play a role in the history of the Vela event, which was illustrated via a story he told in writing to Spurgeon Keeny; the story has since become public. Keeny, who died in 2012, gave at least three interviews over several years beginning in 1989—to Seymour Hersh, Jeffrey Richelson, and myself—in which he related the story of an Israeli post-graduate student at MIT who had been deeply involved with Israel’s nuclear missile systems. The student indicated strongly to Ruina that the Vela event was an Israeli operation that the student had personal knowledge of. Keeny told Seymour Hersh that he and his colleagues in the Carter White House dismissed the student’s story as Israeli disinformation, and Hersh wrote that the information was not made known to the intelligence community or to other members of the Ruina panel. In his interview with me, however, Keeny said that Ruina passed this information to then-CIA Director Stansfield Turner. He did not know what Turner did with the information and did not know if Press or any other members of the Ruina panel had been informed. If there is a record of this, it is not publicly available.

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The question is: What should the international community do about Israel’s and South Africa’s violation? Perhaps some would argue that a violation of a nuclear arms control treaty occurring decades ago should be treated as if a statute of limitations applies. But that violation has undoubtedly aided the development of sophisticated nuclear weapons that can murder millions. There should be no statute of limitations for any violation of international law that has resulted or can result in a holocaust. The ultimate decision on sanctions for the violation should be left to the United Nations.

In any case, if the US government’s silence and cover-up of Israel’s violation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty continues, and the arms control and nonproliferation community acquiesces in it, what shall we make of all the grand-sounding rhetoric we have heard for more than four decades about the importance of international nuclear arms control treaties?

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