Reports out of the UK indicate that U.S. “spy planes” have been deployed across parts of Europe, in search of evidence of a possible nuclear explosion. It is believed the aircraft might have been deployed following reports from air quality stations in several countries that indicated the presence of low levels of Iodine-131 in the atmosphere.
Experts suggest that the radioisotope’s increased presence could be linked to a secret weapons tests, possibly carried out by Russia. One proposed location for the alleged blast is the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic Sea.
The increased Iodine-131 levels were detected in January and February, and among the countries whose monitoring systems detected the spike were Norway, Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic, France, Germany and Spain. However, if a nuclear blast of any kind had occurred, Iodine-131 would only have been one of the various isotopes which would have been detected in greater abundance.
In a statement on Monday, a spokesperson for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) said:
‘If a nuclear test were to take place that releases I-131 it would also be expected to release many other radioactive isotopes. Thus the CTBTO measures isotopes. No other nuclear fission isotopes have been measured at elevated levels in conjunction with I-131 in Europe so far.’
The CTBTO rules out any likelihood that a nuclear blast was behind the increased radiation levels.
The region suspected of being host to a blast site has a long history of use for nuclear weapons tests. Throughout the Cold War era (particularly between the early 1960s and 1990), Novaya Zemlya was used in a number of weapons experiments, including a massive underground test that involved four separate nuclear bombs, yielding a total of 4.2 megatons (it was not the largest weapons test in the region, however).
The underground detonation resulted in earthquakes that reached 6.97 on the Richter Scale, which further resulted in an 80 million ton avalanche nearby. A total of 224 nuclear explosions were detonated at Novaya Zemlya throughout the period.
Part of what sparked concerns has been the deployment of a USAF WC-135 aircraft, which arrived recently at RAF Mildenhall. The Boeing WC-135 Constant Phoenix is described as a special purpose aircraft, which underwent modifications for its mission to collect atmospheric samples that may indicate nuclear explosions. The WC-135 was most famously used just after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, although little information has been made available at this time as to why, specifically, the aircraft was deployed to Britain.
Somewhat mirroring the CTBTO statement, a spokesperson with the USAF noted that Constant Phoenix was, “on a preplanned rotational deployment scheduled far in advance… anything contrary is completely baseless. The WC-135 routinely conducts worldwide missions and we are not going to get into further details.”
The presence of the Iodine-131 by itself does seem to limit the possibility of a nuclear blast, leading to speculation about its mysterious source. The Independent reported that, “The material is also being used to treat some cancers,” and that the presence of the radioisotope by itself “suggests that it had been isolated, and so makes it more likely that the leak came from a pharmaceutical company that hasn’t reported it to authorities.”
For now, the ultimate cause of the mysterious radiation spike throughout Europe remains undetermined, though it will also be a likely source of speculation among the conspiracy-minded… particularly with tensions about U.S. and Russian relations on the rise.