A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 9, 2016

Avner Cohen and William Burr Shed New Light on the Vela "Double Flash" Incident of 1979

I'm one of a small number of Middle East hands who continues to be fascinated by the 1979 incident in which a US Vela satellite detected the double flash typical of a nuclear detonation in sub-Antarctic waters off South Africa, where the South Atlantic and South Indian Oceans join. Although the CIA and other analysts thought it was likely a low-yield nuclear test, a White House scientific panel declared that was unlikely, though subsequent hydrographic and atmospheric evidence of radiation was detected. The mystery has never been fully solved, though  growing consensus has evolved that the double flash was either Israeli, South African, or more probably a joint Israeli-South African test.

A Vela 5B satellite
Last year, I posted about the Vela mystery, when Leonard Weiss reviewed the incident in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Now there's some new material available.  While still not definitive, it adds to the clues that the test was real. Now Avner Cohen, the recognized open-source analyst on Israel's nuclear capabilities, and William Burr, Director of the Nuclear Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, have some new documents, mostly drawn from the papers of Ambassador Gerard C. Smith, Jimmy Carter's Special Representative for Non-Proliferation Matters, and US Representative to the IAEA in the Carter years. The results are still inconclusive as all the intelligence reports remain classified.

For those with a casual interest in the subject, Cohen and Burr summarize the new material in today's Politico. For the seriously interested, they have posted, at the National Security Archives' "Nuclear Vault," an "Electronic Briefing Book," with more extensive background and a full set of links to relevant documents.

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