Remembering the Vela Incident

Older readers may remember rumors of a nuclear explosion in the South Atlantic Ocean in 1979, which could not be verified at the time.  This became known as the Vela Incident.  A recent news report claims new evidence indicates that it was, indeed, a nuclear bomb.

Ever since the flash was observed by a U.S. “Vela” satellite orbiting above Earth in September 1979, there’s been speculation that it was produced from a nuclear weapon test by Israel.

. . .

The flash was located in the area of Marion and Prince Edward islands, which are in the South Indian Ocean about halfway between Africa and Antarctica.

. . .

The researchers conclude that iodine-131, which is an unstable radioactive form of the element iodine found in the thyroids of some Australian sheep, “would be consistent with them having grazed in the path of a potential radioactive fallout plume from a [September 22, 1979] low-yield nuclear test in the Southern Indian Ocean.”

Thyroid samples from sheep killed in Melbourne were regularly sent to the U.S. for testing—monthly in 1979 but also in the 1950s and 1980s, researchers say.

According to a report in the New Zealand Herald, the sheep had been grazing in an area hit by rain four days after the flash incident was observed, which would have been in the downwind path from the suspected explosion site.

Researcher also said the detection of a “hydroacoustic signal” from underwater listening devices at the time is another piece of evidence pointing to a nuclear test.

There’s more at the link.

Here’s a rather dramatic, overly florid documentary about the Vela Incident. It’s not altogether accurate; for example, the flash was not detected near Bouvet Island, as it claims, but near the Prince Edward Islands. Nevertheless, it provides more information about the initial investigation into the incident.

Almost forty years after the Vela Incident, I suppose there’s not much risk involved in talking about it.  I was in a position to know something about it.  According to what I was told, then and subsequently, the explosion was to test an initiator for an Israeli nuclear warhead.  Apparently only a very small device was tested, because all it had to do was prove that the initiator worked.  That would then guarantee the ignition/detonation of a much more powerful nuclear bomb, which would not have to be tested at full strength – something that was sure to be detected, and therefore was most undesirable.

I understood that Israel approached South Africa for assistance in arranging the test in a remote part of the South Atlantic Ocean.  The Prince Edward Islands were (and still are) South African possessions.  There is no normal sea traffic in the vicinity except to resupply a weather station on Marion Island, once or twice a year.  Their extreme isolation therefore made this an ideal location for a very small-scale nuclear test.  It would be conducted at sea, not on land, so as to leave as little evidence as possible.  It was hoped that the (usually severe) weather conditions in the area would help to mask an atmospheric detonation, so that its very small shock-wave would not be detected.  However, the clouds cleared momentarily during the test, allowing a US Vela satellite to detect the characteristic double light pulse of a nuclear explosion.

At the time, both Israel and South Africa denied that the flash was the result of a nuclear explosion.  Other evidence was inconclusive, made more so by the difficulty of gathering it in so remote a location.  By the time WC-135 “sniffer” aircraft could be sent downwind of such a remote location to test the air (it took days after the blast to get them there), the atmospheric residue of the blast had largely dissipated.  I’m not surprised to hear that a small increase in radiation was later detected in sheep in Australia;  the “Roaring Forties” would have carried radioactive particles that far without difficulty.

Quite apart from what I heard and was told at the time, Commodore Dieter Gerhardt, then Commanding Officer of the South African Navy Dockyard at Simonstown, and who was later unmasked as a Soviet spy, later confirmed that he had similar information about the Vela incident.  Subsequent investigations tend to confirm that what we knew then was substantially correct, although details differ according to the source(s) they used.

I think the latest news report is substantially accurate.  If what I learned at the time is correct, it would imply that Israel possessed at least boosted fission weapons, and possibly full-blown thermonuclear bombs, by the early 1980’s.  In the almost four decades since then, I’m certain they’ve gone a long way further.  They’ve developed their own cruise missiles for a submarine-based deterrent, the so-called “Popeye Turbo” weapon, which suggests that they now have miniaturized thermonuclear warheads to fit them.  I’m sure they also have air-launched missiles capable of carrying similar warheads, as well as gravity bombs, probably fitted with guidance systems similar to the JDAM used by the USAF (and Israel).  They also developed, and still field, the Jericho series of ballistic missiles.



  1. And the question is what does South Africa have in it's arsenal, or have they managed to get rid of any special weapons?

    Especially scary question considering the incoming regime, and as we've all seen from previous revolutions, the regimes that will come after, as the country descends into a violent cesspool.

  2. I've worked in the nuclear industry for over 30 years, not on weapons design or fabrication. However, as a result, I have a certain curiosity on the history and development of nuclear weapons. A surprising amount of information is available from unclassified sources.

    My conclusion is that the biggest secret about nuclear weapons is that the damned things work. If you have the money (think GNP of a second world country), the brainpower, and the desire or perceived need, you too can acquire nukes.

    In World War II five nations were at least interested in obtaining atomic weapons, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, the United States and a bit reluctantly (at first) the Soviet Union. Germany decided that by the time a usable weapon could be developed, the war would be over and the resources should be used elsewhere so only a small research effort focusing on power generation was authorized. Great Britain decided to pool its knowledge base with the United States' intellectual and industrial base. Japan did a great deal of theoretical work, but lacked the financial resources to do anything else. The Soviet Union was fully engaged in the war with Germany and could not spare any resources towards nuclear research. The Soviets did have well developed spy networks in the US and Britain, giving them a head start on their own nuclear program after the U.S. bombs were demonstrated.

    Today, in addition to the admitted nuclear powers It's a safe bet Israel, Japan, Iran, Switzerland and Brazil, either have deployed nukes, can fabricate them on short notice or are on the cusp of developing them. Saudi Arabia will likely have nukes in a few years baring the collapse of Iran. I suspect that a number of former Soviet Republics are working towards nukes, possibly with the help of the A. Q. Khan organization.

  3. SA gave up its nukes.

    Question is how long it would take to rebuild them?

    They still have the weapons grade uranium,

    I think they have so many other issues, this don’t happen.

  4. Given that the technology for a nuclear weapon is from the 1940s, it's a certainty that any first or second world country that wants a nuke either has one or can build one on short notice. The delivery system is a different matter.

  5. IIRC, the intelligence estimate (unremembered source, drat it) put Israel at or close to #4 on the list of warhead count. Best guess was approx 400 of the buggers. I don't recall any data on estimated throw weight total, or size variation given.
    With an ICBM reach of about 8k miles, they can hurt just about anyone that wants to screw with them.
    I'm guessing they can turn most of the Middle East (the parts that matter to anyone) into glass that glows in the dark. If I was a betting man, I'd be putting money down on Iran assuming that moon-washed appearance in the not too distant future.

    1. Not only that .. Israel has a significant submarine presence in the Med. This gives them a serious 2nd strike capability even if all their land based assets get taken out in one fell swoop.

  6. BTW, the Arab world (yeah, I know the Iranians aren't Arabs, but they act/think just like them) should be very concerned. If Israel gets hit with a NBC weapon, they may just turn the entire Middle East into a glass parking lot. They all have a vested interest in restraining their own and each others idiots, lest this result befalls them. So far, I don't see much effort in this regard. Then again, that area isn't noted for deep thinkers.

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