Radioactive Sheep, an Anomalous Flash, and a Nuclear Mystery

With as many nuclear weapons as there are out there in the world, it’s amazing there haven’t been more mishaps, accidents, or rogue detonations. While there have been a few close calls like the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash in my home state of North Carolina, so far we’ve been lucky not to have any major incidents. That we know of, that is.

Although it’s kind of hard to hide a mushroom cloud. Unless it’s underground or underwater…

While a nuclear weapon detonation would be pretty difficult to conceal, unexplained clouds of radiation circling the globe over the last year or two might suggest that someone is testing weapons on the sly. While in this most recent case there’s little to go on other than anomalous radiation detection, a still unexplained incident from 1979 came complete with an unidentified double flash of bright light. The American-operated Vela Hotel satellite detected two anomalous bright flashes of light near the Prince Edward Islands off the coast of Antarctica. It was determined at the time that the flashes likely came from a secret nuclear detonation – yet the perpetrator remained unknown.

Now, new research conducted by scientists at the Otago University at Wellington add to the suspicion that the Vela incident was indeed a nuclear detonation. The researchers examined previously unpublished studies of sheep thyroid glands conducted by U.S. military researchers in Australia following the incident and discovered abnormally high levels of iodine-131, a byproduct of nuclear weapons. According to their publication, these findings support the theory that the Vela anomaly was indeed the result of a clandestine nuclear test:

Iodine-131 found in the thyroids of some Australian sheep would be consistent with them having grazed in the path of a potential radioactive fallout plume from a 22 September low-yield nuclear test in the Southern Indian Ocean. Further, several declassified letters and reports which describe aspects of still classified hydroacoustic reports and data favor the test scenario.

Based on intelligence gathered by American spy agencies, it was assumed in the wake of the incident that Israel and South Africa likely conducted a joint nuclear test. That intelligence was then likely buried in order to preserve the United States’ strategic alliance with Israel. Even so, Otago University’s Nick Wilson told the New Zealand Herald that this study of sheep thyroids “adds to the evidence base that this was an illegal nuclear weapons test, very likely to have been conducted by Israel with assistance from the apartheid regime in South Africa,” a test which would have been in violation with the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

Who knew sheep thyroids could help solve one of the world’s nuclear mystery?

This incident really has to make you wonder: how many nuclear detonations or tests have gone undetected or have been assumed to be something else entirely? Even if the answer is “one,” it’s a pretty chilling thought.

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