A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, September 14, 2015

First Vanunu, Now This: Revisiting the 1979 Vela "Double Flash"

Perhaps because of the Iranian nuclear agreement, there seems to be increased discussion of Israel's nuclear arsenal. Eyebrows were certainly raised when Mordechai Vanunu, long imprisoned and then forbidden to speak publicly for revealing details of Israel's deterrent, was interviewed on Israeli television on Septmber 4 and allowed to speak freely. That raised the question of whether the Israeli security establishment is prepared to be more open about its capabilities.

Now, Leonard Weiss revisits another old debate in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "Flash from the past: Why an Apparent Israeli Nuclear Test in 1979 Matters Today."

For those who came in late, on September 22, 1979, a US intelligence satellite tasked to look for evidence of atmospheric nuclear testing, Vela 6911, detected a double flash where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic come together off South Africa. The double flash was characteristic of a nuclear explosion. It was speculated that it was either a South African test with Israeli assistance, or an Israeli test from a South African ship. (They were known to be cooperating at the time.) The US National Laboratories and the US Intelligence Community were convinced that it was indeed a nuclear test, but a scientific panel appointed by the government eventually declared the results inconclusive. Those familiar with the intelligence largely remained convinced it was real but the public perception was that it had been inconclusive.

Weiss's article revives the debate and reviews the evidence, allegations, and rumors. It's worth reading whether you're new to the debate or already familiar with it.

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