An Air Force WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft, like the one currently deployed to a U.S. base in Great Britian. The jet’s arrival last Friday–coupled with a spike in Iodine 131 levels in Europe–has touched off speculation about a possible Russian nuclear test or reactor mishap (USAF photo)
Various military tracking sites report the WC-135 departed RAF Mildenhall in the UK, on an apparent nuclear detection mission over the Barents Sea. The Constant Phoenix aircraft was accompanied by an RC-135 Rivet Joint SIGINT platform, which monitored Russian reaction and provided threat warning, as required. Aerial refueling support for the mission is being provided by 3 x KC-135 tankers.
President Tump’s next National Security Adviser will have to hit the ground running. Along with the litany of issues already on the plate, the new NSA may also inherit a nuclear incident involving Russia.
And we’re not referring to Vladimir Putin’s on-going efforts to expand his nation’s nuclear arsenal, including the recent cruise missile deployment that violated the INF treaty. According to various media outlets, Moscow deployed the SSC-8 missile system last December, during the waning days of the Obama Administration. While President Obama and his advisers were aware of the deployment, they did not respond, pushing that responsibility off on Mr. Trump and his fledgling national security team.
While the SSC-8 has the range to threaten European capitals and NATO bases from launch positions in Russia, it may not represent the most immediate nuclear issue. Over the past month, there have been indications that Moscow may conducted some sort of small-scale nuclear test, probably in the Arctic Region, or suffered a reactor mishap in the same area. A French nuclear safety institute recently released a summary of radioactive material detected across the continent:
Iodine-131 (131I), a radionuclide of anthropogenic origin, has recently been detected in tiny amounts in the ground-level atmosphere in Europe. The preliminary report states it was first found during week 2 of January 2017 in northern Norway. Iodine-131 was also detected in Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain, until the end of January.
Iodine-131 is a radionuclide with a short half-life (T1/2 = 8.04 day). The detection of this radionuclide is proof of a rather recent release.
It must be pointed out that only particulate iodine was reported. When detectable, gaseous iodine is usually dominant and can be estimated to be 3 to 5 times higher than the fraction of particulate iodine.
The data has been shared between members of an informal European network called Ring of Five gathering organizations involved in the radiological surveillance of the atmosphere. In France, IRSN is responsible for monitoring the radioactivity of the atmosphere on a nation-wide scale. Its surveillance network OPERA-Air includes high-volume aerosol samplers (700 to 900 m3 of air per hour) and measurement equipment capable of detecting trace amounts of radioactivity.
No explanation has been given for the sudden detection of Iodine 131 across Europe. There has been no confirmation of a resumption of nuclear testing by Russia, or reports of a reactor incident in the Arctic region.
But the area was once a key component of Moscow’s nuclear research and development effort. During the Soviet era, the Novaya Zemlya archipelago was the site of more than 200 nuclear weapons tests, both above and below ground. In 1961, the Soviets conducted the largest atmospheric nuclear blast in history, the Tsar Bomba test, with an estimated yield of more than 50 megatons. All told, the scores of nuclear blasts conducted at Novaya Zemlya had a collective yield of more than 265 megatons of TNT; for comparison, all detonations during World War II (including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) had a combined yield of only two megatons.
The last official nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya occurred almost 30 years ago, but sub-critical experiments, involving only a few grams of weapons-grade plutonium, have been conducted on a yearly basis since the late 1990s. Additionally, some analysts believe there may have been a larger test staged at the site in 1997, based on a small earthquake detected beneath the ocean. The event, which occurred in mid-August of that year, may have been triggered by a small nuclear test, measuring between 100 and 1,000 tons of TNT. Russia has long been interested in perfecting nuclear weapons with very small yields, perhaps for use in penetrating or silo-busting bombs and warheads.
There have also been rumors of renewed activity at Novaya Zemlya in recent months, ahead of the Iodine 131 release. But so far, no linkage has been established between the reported activity and detection of Iodine 131 at monitoring stations across Europe. The Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet also maintains an extensive presence in the area, including nuclear-powered surface vessels and submarines stationed at bases on the Kola Peninsula. But there has been no confirmation of any recent mishaps involving those units.
Whatever the source, the spike in Iodine 131 has attracted the attention of the Department of Defense, which dispatched a WC-135 Constant Phoenix “sniffer” aircraft to the U.K. on Friday. Part of the 55th Wing at Offut AFB, Nebraska, Constant Phoenix is equipped to detect radioactive particulate and gases released after a nuclear explosion. There are only two WC-135s in the active inventory (and one of the aircraft is said to be in depot maintenance), making the deployment highly significant, particularly in light of on-going requirements to monitor nuclear activity in North Korea. On occasion, the WC-135 has stopped at RAF Mildenhall before heading to the Far East, but there has been no indication the Phoenix bird that arrived Friday has continued a deployment flight to Asia.
Assuming the operational focus is Russia, the WC-135 will conduct collection flights in the coming days–if they’re not already underway. Data gathered by Constant Phoenix will help U.S. policy makers determine the source of the Iodine 131, and formulate a potential response. Particulate iodine would be more consistent with some sort of low-level nuclear detonation, while the gaseous variant is often associated with a reactor mishap. To date, levels of Iodine 131 detected in Europle have been well below those reported after the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s, or the more recent Fukushima mishap in Japan.
If Russian has resumed low-level nuclear testing–and that’s a very big “if” at this point–it will create another contentious issue between Moscow and Washington, landing squarely on the desk of the new NSA. Confirmation of testing, coupled with the afore-mentioned cruise missile deployment, would demand a response from the U.S., while many at the White House favor a more collegial approach. Threading that sort of needle will be Job #1 for Mike Flynn’s replacement. To be sure, this incident began unfolding while Barack Obama was still in office, but to no one’s surprise, he punted to the incoming administration.
Welcome to the West Wing.
Strategic Sentinel, which covers a variety of military and intelligence topics, reports the WC-135 has not flown since deploying to the U.K.