By Grayson Webb

Flash from the past: Why an apparent Israeli nuclear test in 1979 matters today

Published September 8th, 2015 By Leonard Weiss in Bulletin of 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.

The technical evidence—evidence that has been reviewed in earlier publications—led scientists at US national laboratories to conclude that a test took place. But to this should be added more recent information of Israeli-South African nuclear cooperation in the 1970s, and at least two instances—so far unverified—of individuals claiming direct knowledge of, or participation in, the nuclear event, one from the Israeli side and one from the South African. And information provided by national laboratory scientists regarding the state of the satellite’s detectors challenges the view given by a government panel that the flash was likely not that of a nuclear test.

The US government’s use of classification and other means to suppress public information about the event, in the face of the totality of technical and non-technical evidence supporting a nuclear test, could be characterized as a cover-up to avoid the difficult international political problems that a recognized nuclear test was assumed to trigger.

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 …read more