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. jimmon6@aol.com 2/21/17

    I have copied comments below from the other readers and copied the map from this article itself so you can cut through all the many ridiculous comments especially those that blame the Russians since that is what seems popular with the media ever since the Russian hack of the DNC which exposed Hillary’s team ruining Bernie Sanders chances in the Presidential Primary. Take special note of the Wind Direction That It Did Not Come From the North / Russia.
    It came from the South West! This is Just Another Case of Media Hype over an Insignificant
    Amount of Iodine-131 which breaks down and dissipates rapidly and they offered no real source of the cause.
    Readers Comments

    Below is a comparison of IRSN’s map of Iodine-131 readings, next to a map of radiation doses from natural radionuclides, mainly Natural Uranium (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”. That word “Anthropogenic” Means and Implies that it was caused human degradation of the environment.. https://duckduckgo.com/?q=anthropogenic&t=hb&ia=definition

    William Beedie • 7 hours ago

    Or it could be leaking out of the old nuclear subs currently being scrapped in Rosyth in Scotland and Davenport in England, just saying

    Especially Since the Prevailing Wind in Europe Is From the South West
    Kevin Ramsey 5ptsStandardFeatured
    9 hours ago

    Given the Miniscule Levels, Why Is This Even Newsworthy?


  2. Not being an expert is understatement,but know that those who do not know can do great damage. Third world actors playing with fire can burn the neighborhood……reasonable theory…like in eastern europe money starved nation criminals doing business with major money criminals…..hope not

  3. Interesting, but speculation about a collection mission isn’t the same thing as a confirmed report from it.

    Distinguishing between a reactor accident and a test is fairly straightforward. The “birthdate” of all the isotopes collected in a sample will be the same if it’s weapon debris. If it’s from a reactor accident, the sampled mix will have a diverse variety of origin dates.

    Unless there is a recent test by the North Koreans both they and outsiders kept silent about, which is highly unlikely given the attention that’s been focused there lately, the last DPRK test was in Sept. 2016. Since I-131 is a shortlived isotope, it’s unlikely that the current missions are trying to pick anything up from that. However, given global circulation patterns and the DPRK’s northerly latitude, it is possible that samples from a test there could be picked up in the Arctic near Norway, so a test in the DPRK might bring about launch of various “special” missions to sample it, depending on the observed post-test air circulation patterns.

    As for it being a Russian test as the motivation for this, highly unlikely, as they know how easily detectable such tests are. The AEDS (Atomic Energy Detection System) is the term for the overall technical collection mission operated by AFTAC. AFTAC is also the contact point for the US with the CTBT Organization. While the US has withheld formal ratification for the CTBT, much of the CTBT monitoring network is operational and it, too, would be aware of such an event if it occurred, making it even less likely concealable.

    In any case, solid evidence of such an event would be publicly announced, as it has been for the rest of the DPRK’s testing. AFTAC has been able to detect and discriminate nuclear tests down to sub-kiloton levels underground since circa 1960. Tests in the atmosphere give off plenty of detectable debris even if only of a few tons yield, a tell-tale result so clearly revelatory that new nuclear nations like India, Pakistan, and the DPRK now routinely test all their weapons underground from the beginning to limit the ability of the US and other nations to detect and analyze them. Underground testing is no guarantee that a test won’t be detected, though. About half of all underground tests during the Cold War leaked enough to be detectable outside of the national territory, a technical violation of the 1963 LTBT that generally was ignored since it happened to everyone and the LTBT turned out to be far too optimistic about the ability of underground testing to fully contain the radiation underground.

    You might find this recent dissertation enlightening. The complete work is lengthy, but there are several short appendices that discuss the use of I-131 and other methods:

    If you want the short form of several major points in the diss, a Powerpoint is available here:

    Safe to say, AFTAC is very competent at its work and suggestions that any nuclear test might go undetected by it are unlikely. The assets they operate have varied, but they adjust as necessary. After the end of the Cold War, the last of CONSTANT PHOENIX mission aircraft were retired, but recent developments in the DPRK have brought them back. There are also a variety of flyaway kits available that can configure other airframes in order to provide a lower profile mission if that was desirable.

    The significance of any detected test varies, depending on the actor responsible for it, but such a small program that might emerge would not obviate the fact that the US has a vast arsenal of such weapons ready at a moments notice if called on. However, use of such weapons, even in a very limited manner, would impose a heavy cost on the world through their fallout, as well as on where they were targeted.

  4. The most probable is either medical or a rotting sub, but I think a satellite is a possibility. If it is a satellite that recently burned up, it could be very hard to find an origin on the ground…because there wouldn’t be one.

  5. I-131 has a halflife og 8 days. It was released quite a lot from Fukushima, but that is long gone. It means also that there are four halflifes since the detections in Europe, so it is 1/16 left now of what was in mid-january which was close to detection limit on the land based stations which are far more sensitive than the equpment on the plane as they are filtering much larger air volumes. So no. It would make no sense to try to use that plane to “help authorities find out the origin of the Iodine-131.”
    Since there were no other nuclides seen than I-131, it makes no sense to talk about a nuclear test . Much levels are seen in Europe a few times each year and when they are backtracked – which is used using meteorological models – the source is usually industry making radioactive drugs. I-131 is frequently used for curing thyriodea problem.

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