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

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Personnel from the 55th Aerospace Medicine Squadron and 55th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron report a "thumbs down," which indicates the WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft is above acceptable levels of contamination and needs be parked in an isolated location to be decontaminated. This initial radiation survey was done every time the WC-135 landed after collecting air samples in international airspace over the Pacific as part of Operation Tomodachi. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

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.



About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


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

  2. 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.

      • “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.

      • 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?!?

    • 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.

      • 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.

    • 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.

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

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