US suspected Israeli-South African nuclear test behind mysterious 'flash'

On September 22, 1979 an American spy satellite "Vela" registered a powerful flash over the Indian Ocean, several hundred miles off the coast of South Africa.

December 8, 2016 06:07
2 minute read.

Dimona nuclear reactor. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The US suspected that Israel and South Africa conducted a joint nuclear test in 1979, documents published on Thursday reveal.

The documents were released from the estate of Gerard Smith, the former ambassador and special envoy on nuclear nonproliferation issues in the administration of president Jimmy Carter, and were published on the website of the National Security Archive of George Washington University in an article by two US researchers – Avner Cohen and Bill Burr.

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In their article, Dr. Anselm Yaron was named as a possible source of information to the US about Israel’s nuclear capability, in his conversations with an American colleague who was investigating the suspicion of a nuclear test on behalf of Carter’s administration.

On September 22, 1979, an American spy satellite, Vela, registered a powerful flash over the Indian Ocean, several hundred kilometers off the coast of South Africa. The flash and its aftereffects were also recorded by monitoring stations elsewhere in the world.

Following the mysterious incident, suspicions arose within the US government that the flash was the result of a joint nuclear test by Israel and South Africa. Both nations resolutely denied the claim, and have held this position until today.

US suspicions were based on the already established nuclear cooperation between Israel and South Africa during the 1970s, which included sharing knowledge, materials and scientists.

However, there were experts who argued that the flash was the result of a climatic phenomenon, and not a nuclear test.

To get to the bottom of the matter, the Carter administration appointed Prof. Jack Ruina from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to head a team of experts charged with uncovering the truth.

Ruina had mentored Yaron, who had taken a sabbatical at MIT. Yaron was involved in building Israel’s surface- to-surface Jericho missile, which was based on a rocket Israel received from France in the 1960s.

“Dr. Yaron enjoyed talking openly about his defense experience,” wrote Cohen and Burr. “He spoke to Ruina about the missile program and his knowledge of Israel’s nuclear capabilities.”

The article further states that when Ruina delivered a lecture at MIT on the nonconfidential findings of his committee, saying that the flash was possibly not the result of a nuclear test, Yaron called out: “Don’t be so sure.”

However, Ruina’s committee could not reach a unanimous conclusion.

Later, it was claimed that government officials interfered in its deliberations and tipped the report against the opinion of a joint test by Israel and South Africa.

The article quoted Gerard Smith, who died in 1994: “I was never able to break free from the thought that [the event of September 22, 1979] was a joint operation between Israel and South Africa.”

Despite the swirling allegations and suspicions, the mystery of the flash remained unsolved.

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