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The Vela Incident

February 7, 2009

The Prince Edward Islands (not to be confused with the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island) are one of the least-desired pieces of land in the world. They’re located in the Indian Ocean to the south and east of South Africa about halfway to Antarctica, which puts them right in the middle of the Roaring Forties. Ocean circles the Earth almost entirely at that latitude and, without much land to break them up, winds gust in from the east every single day of the year. Rain falls most of those days, and both summer and winter threaten frost and snow. The whales, seals, and penguins like it, but there’s never been a permanent human presence.

With so many disadvantages, the islands were the “prize” in a European-colonial game of pass the parcel. They were seen several times by Dutch and British sailors starting in the 17th century. Captain Cook actually gave them their name, after the son of King George III and the man who would father Queen Victoria, but he never landed on them—no-one did until as late as 1803. The British had a vague claim to the islands but only began enforcing it in 1908, one of the last pieces of land added peacefully to the British Empire. Even at that, London simply gave up its rights and eventually South Africa annexed the islands in 1948. As there’s no-one living there even into the present day, the South Africans did have to deal with the issue of how to rule it: technically it’s now part of Cape Town even though that city is more than 1200 miles away.

So it’s a little surprising that the islands have become a footnote in the Cold War, caught up in the machinations of superpower nuclear treaties. Atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons had stopped by the late 1950s, even though neither the US or the USSR had formally sworn off doing so, because of public concerns over the effects of nuclear fallout. On February 13, 1960, though, France became the fourth county—and the first in eight years—to demonstrate that they had The Bomb when they set off Gerboise Bleue in the Sahara Desert. Feeling out-numbered by NATO and the west (the UK being the other nuclear-capable country), the USSR resumed testing soon after, and the United States followed. By late 1961, the USSR tested the Tsar Bomba—which produced a mushroom cloud roughly sixty kilometers tall. Dirty fission products made the atmospheric radiation level rise by a factor of two between 1955 and 1963. In response, the US and USSR negotiated the formal Partial Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear tests in any environment except underground.

The Soviet Union was completely averse to inspections of testing sites, however, insisting that compliance with the treaty could be supervised from outside national borders. The other nuclear powers had been angling for a total test ban, but this foundered on the Soviet insistence that there be no inspections. The main technique for long-distance detection of nuclear explosions used earthquake detectors to watch for the seismic shock of an explosion, and it was too easy to mistake the signal for a bomb with the signal for a quake. With visions of the USSR continuing testing and waving off protests as just misinterpretations of a natural tremor somewhere in the world, the western nuclear powers were unenthusiastic.

For most of two years the talks were stalemated, until the USSR finally agreed that they would be interested in a treaty banning tests in all environments except underground. The other parties signed on to the new treaty, knowing that they were on the verge of developing something that could detect a nuclear blast so long as it was above ground. That something was the Vela satellite program. The United States had been working on the satellites since 1959, and were ready to take advantage of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in short order. Seven days after it was signed, a pair of Velas were on their way into orbit from Cape Canaveral. More followed through the end of the 1960s.

The Vela satellites were originally called to last for six months, but this was soon upped to seven years. Even at that, the last of the twelve was only shut down in 1984, fifteen years after it was launched. Pushed to the limit, it’s not too surprising that when Vela 10 reported seeing something in the vicinity of the Prince Edward Islands on September 22nd, 1979, arguments started about whether or not it was malfunctioning. The sub-antarctic Indian Ocean was a very long way from Russia.

On the other hand, the world had changed since 1963. Nuclear test bans had given way to nuclear non-proliferation, and a number of countries with contrary governments were suspected to have secret nuclear weapon programs. To be fair, the accuracy of the satellite’s sensors was only several thousand kilometers, and the flash it detected could have come from Bouvet Island instead. Bouvetøya is Norwegian, though, and no-one was willing to believe they had anything to do with it. South Africa, though? That was a different story. The South Africans had nearly tested a weapon in 1977 before backing down under pressure from the US and France; the USSR had actually been the ones to tip off the CIA, a startling example of Cold War co-operation.

Backing up the informal jockeying, the United Nations arms embargo on South Africa had specifically warned all other countries not to help them develop nuclear weapons. Israel was also suspected of developing their own weapons, and some immediately suspected that they had tested a weapon, borrowing Prince Edward Island (as Israel itself was too small to hide a nuclear blast) in return for helping the South Africans with their program on the sly. That possibility was particularly problematic for the United States, as they were entering an election campaign and President Carter had been a champion of nuclear non-proliferation. If Israel had been involved and he failed to impose sanctions, one of his major foreign policy planks would be trashed. And if he did impose sanctions, he’d likely alienate several million Jewish-American voters. Carter was already having to deal with the Iran hostage crisis, and there was controversy over his debates with presidential challenger Ronald Reagan (just a few hours before Vela 10 made its report, Carter had boycotted the first televised debate with Reagan). Rather than throw up another crisis, he decided to wait while experts figured out what had happened.

Backing up the detection, an American program to listen for nuclear tests via their echo through the oceans (water being far better at carrying sound than air) backed up the satellite. As far as the hydrophone operators could tell there’d been a test somewhere in the vicinity of the Prince Edward Islands, either on the ocean surface or just under it. Similarly, the Arecibo radio telescope had seen disturbances in the ionosphere that weren’t like anything that had been seen before. The Air Force, though, failed to detect nuclear fallout despite making twenty-five sorties into the area.

Hoping against hope, the Carter administration called together a special scientific panel to examine the evidence and tell them just what had happened.  It had eight members, including Jack Ruina, Wolfgang Panofsky, and Richard Garwin. You likely had to click those links to know who those men were, but one other member was Luis Alvarez, and you just as likely do know who he was: the one who cracked the problem of dinosaur extinction, having not only discovered the iridium spike at the K-T boundary, but also proposing that it was caused by a massive, climate-changing meteor impact.

In his autobiography, Alvarez spends some time talking about the Vela committee’s task and how they arrived at the conclusion they did. He points out that the particular Vela satellite in question had had several equipment failures in the years before 1979, so that the explosion had been reported on the strength of one instrument, the satellite’s bhangmeter—yes, that’s a marijuana reference, though no-one seems to know why. It was designed to catch the unusual double pulse of light given off by a nuclear explosion: a quick tenth of a second flash before the explosion’s shock wave catches up with the fireball, and then a longer one when the shock wave thins out enough for the fireball to be seen again. The Vela satellites had been designed to crosscheck themselves with a second bhangmeter separated from the first by twenty feet. Only one had gone off when the explosion was supposed to have occurred.

The panel thought that a likelier explanation for the reading was a micrometeoroid hitting one end of the satellite, and piece of glinting debris catching the eye of the one bhangmeter while being too faint for the other to see it. The other evidence mentioned above was written off as nuclear pareidolia incurred in military people trained to look for the traces of nuclear tests. According to Alvarez and his compatriots, no-one had set off a weapon. It was a false alarm.

By the time they made their report, though, news of the incident had made it into the public. The defense and security industry will throw up a strong constituency for just about any contrary position, and the Vela Incident was no exception. As well as all the nuclear scenarios outlined above, others were trotted out with permutations involving Taiwan and India. Members of the UFO community latched on and, between them all, proposed every scenario previously invented for the Tunguska explosion. The tentative consensus went with the White House’s scientific panel, but a lot of people would not have been surprised if it later turned out to be wrong.

In 1991, they had their big chance. Seymour Hersh, the man who exposed the My Lai Massacre and one of the key people who broke the Abu Ghraib scandal, came up with an astonishing coup. As part of a comprehensive overview of the Israeli nuclear weapons program, he claimed that no less than two different sources had confirmed to him that Israel and South Africa had conducted a joint test in 1979. Another confirmation came from Dieter Gerhardt, the former commander of the South African naval base at Simon’s Town and a convicted spy. In early 1994, he claimed that unofficial contacts of his had said the Israelis and South Africans had conducted a joint test under the name Operation Fenix. By the spring of 1994, the idea that the Vela Incident had been caused by a malfunctioning bhangmeter was in retreat.

Except that none of the reported tests ever happened. South Africa’s apartheid regime, to its credit, gave up power in 1994, leading to the country’s first elections with universal suffrage on April 25-26. As part of the conversion toward democracy, President F.W. de Klerk had ordered the shutdown of South Africa’s nuclear weapons program, and in 1991 he committed his country to a complete disclosure of all his country’s nuclear history. South Africa never tested a nuclear weapon. It wasn’t even necessary to rely on their word for it, either. An examination of the project’s records and their nuclear sites showed that almost all their enriched uranium could be accounted for, and that the small amounts unaccounted for were inadequate to produce even one bomb—the “gun-type” weapons they made need tens of kilograms of the stuff, even at the highest purity. Furthermore, there was no sign of a test in combination with Israel. Some still think a clandestine faction of South Africa’s government or military may have taken up their half of the test without the main body knowing, with only Israel actually exploding a bomb. But it’s been forty years since Vela 10 phoned home, and nearly two decades since South Africa came clean about its nuclear weapons. Nothing that comes close to fitting the bill has shaken loose.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2010 1:09 AM

    You probably won’t read this as I’m commenting to an entry that is a year old. Thanks for another perspective on the Vela Incident. I have a very different position – if you are interested:

    If it wasn’t a test why did the US ask for and find raised levels of Iodine-131 in sheeps’ thyroids over the southern States of Australia? Why did those samples go to University of Tennessee not the more appropriate Los Alamos or Berkley? What about the testimony of Mordechai Vanunu?

    Thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s Disease in particular) in Perth is endemic and many previously rare autoimmune conditions (ie autoimmune anaphylaxis) are now commonplace. Health stats out of Chenobyl and the experience of the Hanford community are reinforcing my theory. My generation was exposed as children and now they are having children with severe autoimmune conditions.


  1. News - The Physics Hypertextbook
  2. The Vela Incident | Intro to Global Studies

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