The VELA Incident: Declassified Files Shed Light on the Nuclear Test Controversy

“We had operational successes, most importantly regarding Pretoria’s nuclear capability. My sources collectively provided incontrovertible evidence that the apartheid government had in fact tested a nuclear bomb in the South Atlantic in 1979, and that they had developed a delivery system with assistance from the Israelis.”

CIA clandestine service officer Tyler Drumheller


U.S. Vela satellite

Washington, D.C., December 8, 2016 A CIA-sponsored panel of well-respected scientists concluded that a mysterious flash detected by a U.S. Vela satellite over the South Atlantic on the night of 22 September 1979 was likely a nuclear test, according to a contemporaneous report published today for the first time by the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.  Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

On 22 September 1979, at 00:53 GMT, by the American Vela satellite 6911 reported the characteristic double flash of a small atmospheric nuclear explosion of two to three kilotons, in the Indian Ocean between the Crozet Islands and the Prince Edward Islands.

The previous 41 double flashes the Vela satellites detected were all subsequently confirmed to be nuclear explosions. There was, and remains, much doubt as to whether the satellite’s observations were accurate. [WIKIPEDIA]

Today, the National Security Archive is posting a large number of recently declassified files regarding the ‘Vela Incident’.

Within days, a larger White House scientific panel would assert that the nuclear test thesis was unlikely, but in 1980 additional evidence emerged that led a senior U.S. intelligence official to disparage the White House study as a “whitewash” influenced by “political considerations.”

The debate over the “September 22 Event” or the “South Atlantic flash” continues to this day, including whether Israel may have staged a test with South African assistance.  

The newest information, included in today’s posting, comes from recently declassified documents in the files of Ambassador Gerard C. Smith at the National Archives.

The Smith files shed light on both the Vela controversy and the U.S. government’s efforts to grapple with it.

Short Documentary


The Vela Incident: South Atlantic Mystery Flash in September 1979 Raised Questions about Nuclear Test


The VELA Incident: Declassified Files Shed Light on the Nuclear Test Controversy

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