U.S. Air Force deploys WC-135 nuclear sniffer aircraft to UK as spike of radioactive Iodine levels is detected in Europe

Feb 19 2017 - 90 Comments

The USAF WC-135C Constant Phoenix might be investigating a spike in radioactive levels in Norway. Someone speculates the release of this radionuclide could be the effect of a Russian nuclear test.

On Feb. 17, 2017, U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer,” serial number 62-3582, using radio callsign “Cobra 55” deployed to RAF Mildenhall, UK.

As we have already reported the WC-135 is a derivative of the Boeing C-135 transport and support plane. Two of these aircraft are in service today out of the ten examples operated since 1963. The aircraft are flown by flight crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base while mission crews are staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

The WC-135, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crews, can carry up to 33 personnel. However, crew compliments are kept to a minimum during mission flights in order to lessen levels of radioactive exposure.

Effluent gasses are gathered by two scoops on the sides of the fuselage, which in turn trap fallout particles on filters. The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

Along with monitoring nuke testing, the WC-135 is used to track radioactive activity as happened after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima incident back in 2011.

One of these aircraft was deployed near North Korea in anticipation of Kim Jong Un rocket launches then was spotted transiting the UK airspace in August 2013 raising speculations it was used in Syria thanks to the ability to detect chemical substances down wind from the attack area days, or weeks after they were dispersed.

Although they cross the European airspace every now and then, their deployment in the Old Continent is somehow rare. As of yet, there has been no official statement from the U.S. military about the reasons why such nuclear research aircraft was deployed there. However, many sources suggest the aircraft was tasked with investigating the spike in Iodine levels detected in northern Europe since the beginning of January.

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.

However, no one seems to know the reason behind the released Iodine-131. Along with nuclear power plants, the isotope is also widely used in medicine and its presence in the air could be the effect of several different incidents.

Or, as someone speculates, it could have been the side effect of a test of a new nuclear warhead in Russia: an unlikely (considered the ability to detect nuke tests through satellites and seismic detectors) violation of Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Maybe the WC-135 will help authorities find out the origin of the Iodine-131.



  • InklingBooks

    Why focus on Russia for a nuclear test? This could also be a North Korean test that went awry or an accident in Iran’s nuke program?

    Here are the potential sources, which include use as a marker in they increasingly common hydraulic fracking.


    • SPQR9

      Wind patterns generally are opposite those sources.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo

      Because Russia has an amazing record when it comes to putting up a public face of compliance with a treaty, but breaking it in secret. The list is long, and I can provide a list if you’d like going back to the 60’s. They’re also on the short list of suspects who could conduct a test while not tripping seismic sensors. Note the deployment of ground launched cruise missiles and Iskander IRBM’s in Europe also against the 1987 INF treaty. These treaties do have exit clauses, but it seems the Russians have their own ideas on that.

    • foorider

      Obviously the focus is on Russia is due to the locations of the detection. Why would a test from North Korea or Iran only cause Iodine-131 detection in Europe / Scandinavia (Norway, Finland, etc) but not nearby places in Asia or the Gulf?

    • Pooua

      North Korea is a long way away from Norway.

    • Rational_Db8

      Because it if were NK, they’d have detected far higher levels in Japan long before anything could make it’s way to the areas where it’s been detected. Pretty sure considering the prevailing winds, that we’d detect it across America before western Europe would ever see anything that way.

  • TractorEngineer

    Russian nuclear test or they blew up another nuclear reactor? They’re both just as likely.

    • Jason

      could be a Russian nuclear power plant run amuck on a submarine or a satellite crash.

    • Michael J. Listner

      A full nuclear test would have been detected seismically.

      • CleanupPhilly

        It was in the case of North Korea on Jan 6, 2016 – a 5.1 in the US. That is pretty significant.

    • JWood-the-other

      Any nuke accident would have released many other detectable materials besides Iodine-131.

      • TractorEngineer

        Yeah, I could see that.

  • Jaro Franta

    France’s Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute, the IRSN (Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire) is reporting the “Detection of radioactive iodine at trace levels in Europe in January 2017”
    IRSN says that Iodine-131 is “a radionuclide of anthropogenic origin” and that “the detection of this radionuclide is proof of a rather recent release,” adding that “the iodine release, the origin of which is still unknown”.
    Although they add that “these levels raise no health concerns,” the bit about “unknown origin” suggests some sort nefarious mystery.

    First of all, the readings are truly minuscule – reported in units of µBq/m3, or micro-Becquerels per cubic meter.
    That’s equivalent to something like one decay every 12 days !
    At these extremely low levels, the obvious likely source that immediately comes to mind is fugitive emissions from hospital oncology wards.

    However, the IRSN is mistaken in implying that Iodine-131 is “a radionuclide of anthropogenic origin” only.
    Iodine-131 is also a product of spontaneous fission of natural uranium (NU).
    In regions where near-surface concentrations of NU are high, one would expect “trace levels” to be higher as well.

    Below is a comparison of IRSN’s map of Iodine-131 readings, next to a map of radiation doses from natural radionuclides, mainly NU and its decay products.
    Iodine-131 radiation dose from NU spontaneous fission will be totally insignificant of course, but the map at right is indicative of regional abundance of NU, where one would expect the readings of trace amounts of Iodine-131 to be higher as well.
    The higher figure for northern Spain (1.28 µBq/m3) may perhaps be an example.
    The higher reading in eastern Poland (5.92 µBq/m3) seems more likely to be “of anthropogenic origin” – either a hospital or the local radioisotope production facility.
    Either way, IRSN should have posted some estimates of expected natural background levels of Iodine-131, instead of disingenuously claiming that “a radionuclide of anthropogenic origin”.


    • Far more important than monitoring radiation levels from Fukushima that have been intentionally free flowing into the Pacific. Never mind the West coast levels brought from the ocean and the storms ever since the disaster happened years back.

      The Gov’s lack of desire for the US citizenry is painfully clear.
      Must find a way to villainize Russia enough to create the next big (and unnecessary) war and ignoring radiation within the US paints a clear picture of virtual contempt for the citizenry.

      • Rational_Db8

        “intentionally free flowing into the Pacific?” What plant are you living on? Clearly you haven’t been paying any attention to what has actually occurred and the huge steps that have been taken to try to prevent discharge of any significant amount to the Pacific.

        “Never mind the west coast levels” is right, however, although you certainly didn’t mean it that way. The levels measured on the west coast related to Fukushima have been minuscule – not anything that’s a risk. What’s more, there was NO detection on in the ocean on the west coast for a few years after the event – it took that long for the very diluted particulates to make it across the massive Pacific.

        “The Gov’s lack of desire for the US citizenry is painfully clear.”

        Is English not your native language, or are you just incoherent? Regardless, it would seem you’re trying to suggest that the American gov. somehow failed the population when it comes to Fukushima – and that’s just ignorant and grossly incorrect.

        “Must find a way to villainize [sic] Russia enough to create the next big (and
        unnecessary) war and ignoring radiation within the US paints a clear
        picture of virtual contempt for the citizenry.

        That’s a massive FAIL. Try learning some actual facts about radiation levels and radiation biology before spewing such ignorant garbage. There’s zero risk to American citizens on the west coast from anything that’s been released by Fukushima. It’s that simple. All you are doing is peddling massively incorrect conspiracy theories – ones that are laughable to anyone even remotely familiar with the effects of radiation and the levels required before any such effects can even be remotely caused or detected.

      • Thomas Verhey

        Intentionally huh… I can see & hear the ROLFCOPTERS coming over the horizon!
        Oh shit! Long range sensors says they’re armed with ROLFMISSILES too!

        …. Chemtrails? Flat Earth? Area 51 aliens? Chinese manufactured climate change?

        Anything else we should discuss?!?

    • jim

      Really? Hospital wards? Their detecting Iodine-131 all over Europe. Traces of Iodine-131 were found in Norway, Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain in January, but the public were not immediately alerted. When Chernobyl blew up the Soviets kept it a big secret until radioactive isotopes started turning up all over Europe. Don’t think Putin would do anything different.

      • Rational_Db8

        The levels are minuscule – far far too low to be any health threat to anyone. In other words, there’s no point in alerting the public at all, because there is no increased risk. No secret is being kept. The information was readily available to anyone interested in such things. Trying to tie this to Chernobyl and the Russian’s keeping that quiet for a few days is absurd – there is no comparison. But you are right that it wouldn’t be surprising for them to keep quiet about something that was notable. This, however, clearly isn’t.

      • George Christodoulou Jagaro

        Jim you dream in technicolor!!!

    • Rational_Db8

      Sorry, but I-131 isn’t in the natural decay chain for Uranium. It only occurs as a fission product in the chain when you start by bombarding U-235 with neutrons in a nuclear power reactor, or you use a tellurium source and bombard it in a reactor on purpose to create I-131. Even in areas with very high naturally occurring uranium levels (or our construction with products containing high levels of uranium, such as marble buildings), you don’t see any I-131 from it.

  • f16hoser

    You might want to sniff-around the World Trade Center. Nukes were used on 9-11. Micro-nukes to be exact. Nuff said.

  • Dewreck

    Mini nukes, testing of small neutron bombs, perhaps?

  • Dave

    Nice to see some general read the story in the local news paper and then decided to act decisively.. Trillions spent on defense and this is the best we get.. How 9-11 happened we may never know.. Or will we?

  • Kevin W. Pierce

    This makes me wonder if the aging Russian nuclear submarine fleet had another catastrophic event.

  • rob

    Would be interesting to see historical readings for comparison but these are perhaps classified. Adding to the conspiracy theories, maybe someone was just transporting uranium?

    • Mike

      Yes, much of the records of detection of foreign tests and most high yield US tests in the Pacific remain classified. Tracks and some data from testing in Nevada were long ago declassified. The Centers for Disease Control and the National Cancer Institute have done preliminary estimates of the extent of the harms associated with atmospheric testing, but require the more detailed historical data the Air Force continues to hold in order to provide a more accurate assessment of atmospheric testing’s health and environmental effects.

      Beyond the current operations possibly being a training deployment taking advantage of an opportunity to target the detected anomalies (remember that volcanic and other natural activities can also generate suspicious signatures that require investigation), there’s a rather significant possibility that could be associated with the DPRK or another actor that hasn’t been mentioned.

      After fuel rods of uranium have been irradiated long enough to efficiently produce Pu-239 in plutonium production reactors, they were typically cooled for some time to allow the I-131 and other isotopes contained within them to decay to more manageable levels. However, if sufficient space and suitable equipment is available, the rods can be processed while still “green,” but this releases a lot of radiation that would otherwise have decayed. Besides considerable discussion in the dissertation I cited in my earlier post, you can Google “GREEN RUN” for more info.

      The GREEN RUN took place at Hanford shortly after AFOAT-1’s detection of the first Soviet test in late 1949. It was apparently undertaken to calibrate detection apparatus and to provide a chance to gauge the ability to distinguish between a test event and a reactor accident. While it also included sampling for krypton-85, the GREEN RUN was notable for releasing far more radiation than originally anticipated, then having that linger much longer locally that night due to unanticipated weather conditions, leading to much higher ground level doses than originally calculated to areas around Hanford.

      Beyond detection of nuclear testing on a global basis, AFOAT-1/AFTAC’s mission also includes assessing fissile material production, it’s possible that is what the CONSTANT PHOENIX missions were targeting, rather than a nuclear test. If the DPRK suddenly quit allowing its fuel rods to cool before processing, instead beginning the process almost immediately, it could provide a temporary acceleration in fissile material production and thus warhead production, something its often erratic leadership might find useful under the circumstances.

  • Whitehall

    Poland has begun making plutonium. They need their own nuclear weapons to deter Russia since they can’t completely trust NATO.

  • ronwf

    “crew compliments”

    I rather doubt that the number of people in the crew is limited in order to keep too many favorable comments about the flight from being made. However, I can see where the crew complement (i.e., the number and qualifications of the people in the crew) would be kept to the minimum necessary to ensure that as few people as possible are exposed to radiation.

    Spell check has its limitations, one of which is that it does not eliminate homonyms.

  • Mickawber

    Probably too late to get to the bottom of it. I thought Mildenhall closed! Are we now using it as a contingency base like Moron Airbase Spain? I remember going over to europe during chernobyl and how we couldnt get fresh veggies at Sigonella because of the rad plume that spread through Europe….Interesting.

    • Stephen Tuck

      Mildenhall s still open they say it could be up to 7 years before it closes

  • Shootist

    a russian nuke test that we didn’t see, feel or hear? Not very likely.

    • jim

      Sounds to me that one of Mr. Putin’s nuclear submarines in the arctic had a major problem with its reactor melting down .

      • Frank Energy

        they would just sink it, no release, for now anyway

    • karim140995

      Why a nuke test, probably just russia flexing on europe.

      • Shootist

        Russia doesn’t want Europe. Nobody wants Europe.

  • Stuck_in_Ca√→

    I’ve been on that plane!

    • Robert Hudson

      Which one? This is a pic of 61-2667 not 3582!!! Haha!

  • diplorius

    Fukushima now has readings of 530 sieverts (unheard-of) and has been dumping 300+ TONS/day of irradiated water into the Pacifiic, for over 5-years now….
    Think it might, just-maybe, play a part in this “mystery”?
    Reminds-me of the PHDs in California trying to figure-out the demise of sea-life(?)

    • Rational_Db8

      Sorry, but no. The radiation level you refer to isn’t “unheard of.” What’s more, that’s within the containment vessel, which is inside a containment building too – not anywhere outside. What’s more, water released into the Pacific has nothing to do with atmospheric levels, let alone atmospheric levels in western Europe.

      Even more key, I-131 is only produced in an operating (or actively melting down) reactor – and with it’s very short half life, all the I-131 from Fukushima was essentially gone after only 3 months past the initial accident. It hasn’t released any I-131 in years now.

      As to the demise of sea-life, there wasn’t anything that way even remotely associated with Fukushima. There was a starfish wasting disease problem – one that began long BEFORE Fukushima and is related to disease, not radiation. Nor has there been any other sea life die off that is in any way related to Fukushima.

    • h4rr4r

      You should look at a map.

      Those numbers are in the reactor vessel.

      The Phds are smart enough to now that Fukushima has nothing to do with it.

  • Walt Browning

    May I postulate the presence of a dirty bomb? Iodine-131 is found in this device. I would be very worried if I lived in a major metropolitan area in Europe.

  • Deplorable Richard Lee
  • VonDuff1

    The sniffer should be quickly re-deployed to the Pacific.

    The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Fallout levels, from Tritium, Cs-137 and radio strontium are in these recent torrential California Rains.

    • Rational_Db8

      Baloney. For that to be true, Fukushima would have to still be emitting massive amounts of atmospheric radiation – it’s not, and hasn’t been for a very long time. There hasn’t been any significant level of fallout from Fukushima detected in the USA – very very low levels (way below any risk of harm) were detected long ago briefly – and virtually nothing for quite a long time now.

      • “significant” being the key word
        There has been fallout from Fukushima. No one wants to discuss it. Because we have all likely been eating extremely small quantities of it.

  • certbobdobbs .

    Here is a tip of where it is coming from….FUKUSHIMA.

    • Rational_Db8

      Impossible. All the I-131 from Fukushima was essentially gone only 3 months after the earthquake and tsunami caused the event. I-131’s half life is only a hair over 8 DAYS.

    • Alec Dacyczyn

      I-131 had a half-life of 8 days. It’s gone after a few months. Fukushima stopped producing fission products many yeas ago. It’s not Fukushima.

      • mosanders

        Yes it is Fukushima. That’s why I make sure my seafood originated in the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters only have one foot and can’t travel very far.

  • jim

    Memories of Chernobyl . When the reactor blew the Soviet Union kept it a secret until radioactive isotopes started to be detected in a wide area over Europe. Come on Putin—————-the jig is up so come clean.

  • CleanupPhilly

    North Korea set off a smaller nuclear bomb in a fission blast on Jan 6, 2016 folks.


    It caused a 5.1 earthquake in the US, which suggested it was a boosted fission device, or something suitable for use on an ICBM of which North Korea has shown it now can launch with success given the recent test firing of the satellite fired on the Super Bowl.

    • Rational_Db8

      Sorry, but the 5.1 was the estimated seismic event at the location of detonation, not in the USA. It was estimated by the USGS – not in the USA. Re-read your link. It was also an underground test, not above ground. Plus, if it managed to breach and some got in the atmosphere, the prevailing winds would have the radiation be detected a number of other locations well before it ever managed to make it’s way to western Europe. So the NK test isn’t a credible source.