The Vela Incident and Proliferation

2 Jan

Nuclear history is chock full of the strange, the never-quite-adequately explained, and the conspiratorial.(1) A fascinating example of this is the September 1979 ‘Vela Incident.’ This is kind of vaguely related to my thesis work, as it impinges on nuclear proliferation (kind of.)

The Velas were a series of U.S. satellites designed to detect clandestine nuclear testing. They used what are known as ‘bhangmeters’ (plus a bunch of other uber-scientific doohickeys) to pick up the unique ‘double flash’ given off by a nuclear explosion. The satellite in question, Vela 6911, was over ten years old in September 1979. On the 22nd, it picked up a double flash in the South Atlantic, far, far away from any land (apart from the remote, French-owned Kerguelen Islands.) Heads were scratched on a global scale, committees were convened, much sweat poured forth.(2)

There are four generally accepted possible explanations for the incident:

1) It was a clandestine nuclear test.
2) It was a micrometeorite hitting the satellite.
3) It was a fault in the aging electronics.
4) It was a freak combination of natural occurences.

(Some of these are discussed in a CIA report on the event, from late 1979. In this report, India is mentioned as potentially having enough nuclear material for a test, while Pakistan is largely discounted. There are, however, substantial redacted sections in the report that may contain further – as yet unrevealed – information on this.)

The candidates for 1 are many and varied. Most popular is South Africa, who had a limited nuclear arsenal during the apartheid era. If this did happen, it may have taken place jointly with Israel (now there is an axis of awful for future discussion: a nuclear armed apartheid South Africa working with a nuclear armed Israel. Fun times for all concerned.) On the other hand, it might be India, who tested their first bomb underground in 1974. Or, given the nearness of the Kerguelens, it might be France testing a neutron bomb that they don’t want the rest of the world to know about. (3)

However, given the paucity of other radiological evidence, the arguement for a nuclear test seems a bit weak. Yes, some individuals have come forward to claim it was and SA/SA-Israel test, but they are not the most reliable of witnesses (and, to be fair, may have other motivations for painting the situation as such.) Broadly, it seems that the most likely explanation is one of 2 to 4.

Yet, this all raises interesting points. Because of the secrecy surrounding nuclear development and nuclear politics – particularly during the murky era of the Cold War – we can never be entirely sure. It also raises methodological issues for historians: which evidence do you believe, who do you believe, do you discount the word of one man purely because he was an ex-Soviet mole seeking to gain some fame and fortune after being released from prison? The Vela Incident in itself is not really hugely significant, a minor footnote in Cold War nuclear history. However, the points it raises are wider and more important regarding attitudes towards nuclear proliferation, access to sources, and the reliability of evidence. And because there are some out there who desperately want to believe it was actually the reactor of a crashing UFO going critical and the U.S. government (who else?) yet again covered it all up.(4)


(1) In the sense of an actual conspiracy, rather than all that conspiracy theory nonsense.
(2) I editorialise here somewhat.
(3) Although, given recently declassified information on U.S.-French nuclear cooperation in the 1970s, this would have been unlikely in the extreme. Also, 1979/80 was the time of a massive controversy over U.S. plans to upgrade tactical nuclear forces in Europe with neutron warheads. Hence, they weren’t that popular, although somewhat misunderstood by the lay public.
(4) It is worth taking a look at the excellent Spying On The Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York, NY, 2006) by Jeffrey T. Richelson (which I have mentioned before.) I have a copy in front of me right now and can give it two thumbs up! There is also a more detailed analysis of – and further documentation on – the Vela Incident at the National Security Archive Nuclear Vault.

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