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Air Force clears the air around specialized 'nuke sniffer' plane deployment

One of the two WC-135 Constant Phoenix jets in the U.S. Air Force parked at RAF Mildenhall, England, Thursday, March 2, 2017. The planes are equipped to sniff out particles in the air such as Iodine-131, which results from nuclear explosions.

WILLIAM HOWARD/STARS AND STRIPES

By WILLIAM HOWARD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 9, 2017

RAF MILDENHALL, England — The Air Force has dismissed suggestions that the deployment here of a specialized “nuke sniffer” plane had anything to do with speculation in the media about a test of a nuclear device in Russia, saying it was a routine mission planned long in advance.

The arrival of the nuke sniffer coincided with reports that trace Iodine-131 had been detected at air-quality stations in Norway, Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain. The radioisotope is a nuclear fission product.

“This particular mission we were working on last fall. We’re currently looking at the missions for next summer and fall,” Col. Jonathan VanNoord, operations director at the Air Force Technical Applications Center, told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday. “We do this routinely. Over the last four years these aircraft have averaged 157 days on the road.”

AFTAC is the headquarters for the WC-135 Constant Phoenix mission and supports the 1963 Limited Nuclear Ban Treaty — which prohibits above-ground nuclear weapons testing — by detecting radioactive clouds after they’re dispersed. The aircraft is a modified C-135B equipped with external flow-through devices that collect particles on filter paper and a compressor system for whole-air samples. Collected atmospheric samples are then brought to a lab for further testing.

Iodine-131, which can be used for medical treatment, was released during open-air atomic bomb testing in the 1950s and during the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power station disasters.

“This has been planned for a long time and we didn’t go there to look for this iodine,” VanNoord said.

VanNoord said that the WC-135 crew isn’t in Europe to track down a specific radioactive cloud. Instead, it is participating in a constant mission of monitoring nuclear debris all the world from facilities such as nuclear power stations and hospitals.

“We need to get the background levels so if an event were to happen, we know where that baseline is,” he said. “We just need to make sure that we’re getting the background and knowing what’s happening around the world and what changes are happening in the atmosphere.”

News reports in Britain and several other European countries have claimed that the WC-135 crew was investigating secret Russian nuclear weapons in Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic, which would be a violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

“If a nuclear test were to take place that releases I-131, it would also be expected to release many other radioactive isotopes,” the test ban organization said in a statement. “No other nuclear fission isotopes have been measured at elevated levels in conjunction with I-131 in Europe so far.”

There are only two U.S. Air Force WC-135s in active service, out of 10 originally used by the Air Force. They have been conducting year-round air-sampling missions over international waters since 1965.

“These are just some absolute rock star professionals, and they are the best in the world at what we do,” said VanNoord. “What they find in the air is a testament to their skill, professionalism and training.

howard.william@stripes.com
 

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