David Leigh / The Guardian – 2005-08-05 00:28:57
How the UK Gave Israel the Bomb
David Leigh / The Guardian
LONDON (August 4, 2005) — Britain secretly supplied the 20 tons of heavy water to Israel nearly half a century ago which enabled it to make nuclear weapons, according to Whitehall documents which have been discovered at the Public Records Office.
Officials in the Macmillan government deliberately concealed the deal from the US, according to the files, which were discovered by BBC Newsnight and broadcast last night.
Historians and politicians have been startled by the discovery, which sheds new light on the process by which Israel was able to circumvent attempts to restrict membership of the “nuclear club” to the great powers.
Most of those involved are now dead, but Lord (Ian) Gilmour, who was active in Conservative politics during that era, said last night: “I would have been astonished and found it absolutely unbelievable.” He said he did not believe Harold Macmillan or his ministers knew anything about the sale, which Britain permitted without demanding safeguards against military use.
“They’ve gone out of their way to do it without safeguards,” he said. “One would have thought that any reasonably educated civil servant wouldn’t have dreamed of doing anything like this without consulting a minister but as far as I can see they didn’t.”
A nuclear specialist, Frank Barnaby, said: “I had no idea at all the British were involved.”
The sale, in two successive 10-ton shipments to Israel from a British port, went to Israel’s secret underground reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert.
Dr Barnaby said the deal appeared “rather foolhardy” and added: “I would have thought a cautious government would have in no way been seen to be doing anything to help the Israeli nuclear programme.”
The primary motive for the sale, according to the documents, appeared to be commercial. The British atomic energy authority was able to get rid of a consignment of heavy water worth £1.5m, or £20m in today’s prices, which it had bought from Norway but no longer had a use for.
The deal was structured as a resale to Norway, which then traded the consignment on to Israel. This enabled British officials to say they had no responsibility themselves for imposing safeguards.
But, according to the documents, the deal was concealed from the US, which was hostile to proliferation, because the Eisenhower administration might have insisted on unacceptable conditions which would have scuppered the sale.
When Robert McNamara became the US defence secretary in 1961, he and President Kennedy strived to stop Israel from going on to build nuclear weapons. He told Newsnight last night that he had never known of Britain’s behaviour at the time.
“The fact Israel was trying to develop a nuclear bomb should not have come as a surprise but that Britain should have supplied it with heavy water was indeed a surprise to me,” he said.
“It’s very surprising to me that we weren’t told because we shared information about the nuclear bomb very closely with the British.”
The origins of the heavy water used in the Dimona reactor remained almost entirely unknown until the revelations of Mordechai Vanunu, a disaffected Dimona technician, in the 1980s.
It was disclosed then that the 20 tons originated from Norway. But Norway itself continued to remain silent about the true nature of the deal.
Heavy water, made by a laborious electrolysis process, is so called because it contains extra neutrons. It was a crucial element of the kind of basic nuclear reactor then being built by Israel with French help, which used natural uranium rather than the more advanced technology involving enriched uranium fuel.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
US Kept in the Dark as Secret
Nuclear Deal Was Struck
David Leigh / Guardian
(August 4, 2005) — Israel’s acquisition of nuclear bombs has been one of the most sustained pieces of deceit in recent history. The project was guarded with such passion that in the 1980s the technician Mordechai Vanunu was kidnapped and spent 11 years in solitary confinement for blowing some of its secrets.
It is remarkable then, that documents lying unnoticed in the public records office at Kew should reveal Britain’s hitherto unknown role 47 years ago in deceiving the US and supplying Israel with the means to go nuclear.
The main files on the subject, from the UK Atomic Energy Authority, are still classified. But BBC Newsnight producer Meirion Jones says he found a handful of key copies in a routinely declassified but obscure Foreign Office counter-proliferation archive.
Apart from a passing mention of a British connection in 1998 by Israeli academic Avner Cohen, the UK’s key role seems to have been completely unknown to historians.
What the documents still fail to reveal, however, is how high up in the Macmillan government the decision was taken to go behind the back of President Eisenhower and load 20 tons of heavy water from Britain on to Israeli ships, thus enabling Israel to start up its Dimona reactor.
On the face of it, the decision was mere avarice. Britain’s own highly secret nuclear weapons project had spent in the region of £1.5m on barrels of heavy water from Norway.
But a different technological route had been chosen for the UK in the end, using graphite as a moderator to bring about nuclear reactions. Norway refused to cancel the heavy water contract. It must have been tempting for those in charge of Whitehall budgets to be offered a chance to get their money back.
In the days of the cold war, the Official Secrets Act ensured that there was little danger of civil servants being held to account by MPs or the public for what they had done. They could scrawl without anxiety, as one did, “I would prefer not to mention this to the Americans”, or “It would be somewhat over-zealous for us to insist on safeguards”.
Only the US, Russia and the UK had nuclear weapons at the time, shortly to be joined in the “nuclear club” by France. The west was, officially at least, dedicated to preventing nuclear proliferation to small, unstable countries. But Israel was to be the first to break through this embargo.
In 1958, Israeli bulldozers had just started to break the ground at Dimona in the Negev desert for a top-secret French team to start constructing what France was later to claim it believed to be a small “research reactor”.
France supplied Israel with a small quantity – four tons – of heavy water, but Israel needed much more if it was to to start a reactor that could manufacture weapons quantities of plutonium.
In September 1958, Israel offered, via the Norwegians, to buy 25 tons of heavy water which Britain possessed.
David Peirson, secretary of the UKAEA, wrote to Whitehall officials that he intended to sell “without restrictions”. It was clear from his letter that there had already been discussions within the British government about the proposed sale.
It could be argued, he wrote, that if Britain was a party to the sale to Israel, there should be safeguards to prevent Israel using the heavy water to make bombs.
On the other hand, Britain had got the heavy water from Norway for its own military purposes: “It might be regarded as somewhat unreasonable that we should now stipulate for conditions we did not accept ourselves.”
Technically, Britain would be selling back to Norway, and Norway would re-sell to Israel: “It would be primarily for [the Norwegians] to consider the issue … It would be somewhat over-zealous of us to insist on safeguards.”
At the Foreign Office, Alexander Stirling suggested: “We might make the gesture of informing the Americans … unless there was any risk of a US firm stealing the Israeli orders.”
He was rapidly overruled by Douglas Cape, first secretary at the FCO in charge of nuclear security, in terms that made it clear the fear was the US would demand too many safeguards: “I would prefer not to mention this to the Americans lest it lead them to ask us to take up what would in fact be an untenable position vis-a-vis the Norwegians.”
The cover story was that the heavy water was “understood to be required by Israel for peaceful use in a reactor connected with desert irrigation”.
Accordingly in June 1959, and again the following June, two lots of heavy water of 10 tons each were, according to a note by Alan Brooke-Turner, then first secretary at the FCO in charge of disarmament, “put on board Israeli ships at a UK port” and shipped out to Dimona.
But Israel never got its final five tons of the British consignment, and had to turn elsewhere. To Whitehall’s discomfiture, news of Israel’s activities started to leak and there was an international row.
A US spyplane, the U2, had been taking high-level photos of the activities in the Negev desert. US intelligence had become suspicious, and summoned the Israeli ambassador in Washington to question him.
In December 1960, a story was planted in the British press, via the Daily Express veteran defence correspondent Chapman Pincher, that Israel was trying to make atomic bombs.
The following March, the UKAEA told the Norwegians they thought it was unlikely Israel could have the outstanding five tons, although the deal was commercially “attractive”. This was, wrote Peirson, because of “the political sensitivity of Israel’s nuclear activities”.
Henry Hainsworth, head of the FCO’s atomic energy department, noted sternly: “We have been far from satisfied by the assurances so far furnished by the Israelis of the exclusively peaceful nature of their operations. I should be strongly opposed to letting them have a further five tons.”
One of the FCO’s most senior officials, Sir Hugh Stephenson, finally stamped on the idea. “I am quite sure we should not agree to this sale. The Israeli project is much too live an issue for us to get mixed up in it again.”
Rehearsing the history of the earlier shipment from British ports, another official warned: “This information should not be used in response to inquiries about the heavy water.”
By the time the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, arrived in London on an official visit that June, Whitehall had arranged itself into a position of high-minded disapproval of Israeli behaviour.
The British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, wrote in a minute classified “secret”: “I saw Mr Ben-Gurion this afternoon and told him of our concern about the Israeli nuclear reactor in the Negev. Mr Ben-Gurion explained that its object was to train personnel in preparation for an atomic energy programme in 10 or 15 years’ time aimed at providing cheap power for taking the salt out of sea water to irrigate the Negev.
“I asked Mr Ben-Gurion whether he could not accept international inspection … Mr Ben Gurion said he did not think he could since this would mean bringing in the Russians and Arabs.”
British concern came too late. Israel is now believed to have a secret stockpile of up to 130 nuclear missiles.
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