Norway's Heavy Water Scandals
by Gary Milhollin
September 14, 1988
This autumn, Norway faces three heavy water scandals. Israel is running the Dimona reactor--which the CIA says is making plutonium for atomic bombs--by using Norwegian heavy water sold in 1959. India is running its newest series of reactors--also making plutonium for atomic bombs--by using Norwegian heavy water diverted by a German firm in 1983. And Romania seems to have secretly and illegally reexported--probably to India or Israel--the Norwegian heavy water it bought in 1986. The German and Romanian diversions were revealed in May, and the talks with Israel about Dimona have just ended.
All the importers have broken their word. Israel pledged to use Norway's water for peaceful purposes, and to allow on-site inspection. But Israel refuses any inspection, so Norway cannot find out what its heavy water was used for. Germany gave one of its firms a certificate promising to import the water to Germany and not divert it elsewhere, but after Norway shipped the water on the faith of the certificate, the firm diverted the water to India. Germany says it can't investigate because the water didn't reach German borders. Romania promised not to reexport Norway's water without permission, but won't say--after being asked--where the water is. Norway may have been naive in these matters, but the importers are in open breach of their agreements.
It is time for Norway to stand up for its rights, and put the blame for these scandals where it belongs.
Israel hopes to escape its obligation through a "compromise." Israel admits running the Dimona reactor with Norway's heavy water since 1963 and admits that the reactor has made plutonium. There is enough plutonium by now in Dimona's spent fuel for more than one hundred atomic bombs. Norway has the right to verify that the plutonium made with its water has not gone into bombs, but Israel is only offering to let Norway inspect nine tons of heavy water in drums outside the reactor. The nine tons are what Israel claims are left of the 20 tons imported in 1959 and one ton imported in 1970.
Israel says that 12 tons were lost--a rate of more than 2% per year. Reactors like Dimona normally lose .5% to 1% per year, two to four times less than Israel claims. French engineers who helped build Dimona say the Israelis were expert operators, so the 12 ton loss is not credible. Finally, Israel refuses to promise that the nine tons in drums will all be Norwegian--Israel says the water is mixed with water from other suppliers. Israel therefore expects Norway to forget about verification, and inspect a small amount of mixed water that Israel could have bought on the black market. It is no surprise that former Prime Minister Kare Willoch, commenting on this, said that "it is impossible for Norway to give up its right to inspect the use of Norwegian heavy water in Israel."
Israel has treated U.S. heavy water differently. Israel imported 4 tons from the U.S. in 1963 which Israel put under international inspection and claims was never used. If Israel had put the water in a reactor, the U.S. would demand to see the plutonium. If Israel told the U.S. that it had put the water in a reactor but would not show the plutonium--which is what Israel has told Norway--U.S. officials would be outraged. They would be more outraged if Israel refused to exhibit the whole 4 tons because of operating losses and still wanted to hide the plutonium--Israel then would be hiding both the plutonium and part of the water. The U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency have recently confirmed their policies on this point: they demand to see all the plutonium made by a reactor using any controlled heavy water--even the slightest amount. Thus, they could not accept the offer Israel has made to Norway.
With respect to Germany, the shipment consisted of 15 tons of Norwegian heavy water licensed to go to Frankfurt. The plane took off from Olso in December 1983, landed in Basel where it took on 6.8 more tons of cargo, and went to Bombay after a stop in Dubai. The flight plan is in the computer records of the Swiss air ministry. The cargo added in Switzerland was owned by the same broker who owned the 15 tons, and must have been part of the heavy water he had bought from Norway in small quantities since 1976. Thus, the Norwegian police will probably report that more than twenty tons of Norwegian water is illegally in India.
Romania still has not said where Norway's water is.
For each of these countries, Norway has the same choice. It can stand on its rights or make compromises. Israel's offer is too weak to accept, and Germany and Romania will make weak offers too if Norway accepts Israel's. To stop its exports from making bombs, Norway must confront these countries publicly, and demand that they keep their word.
Confronting Israel will make its bomb a public issue--something Israel has tried to avoid. It will not be easy for Israel to explain why it has broken an international obligation in order to make atomic bombs. Israel will be the first country to break the peaceful use and inspection pledges, upon which the world nuclear trade depends. This will not look good in the United Nations. Norway should force a debate on what these pledges mean, and whether other countries--such as the United States--should help Norway enforce them.
Confronting Germany will heap another scandal on the pile already covering its nuclear industry. The Norwegian diversion is the most serious scandal yet because it violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which forbids the transfer of heavy water without international controls. Germany's position, like Israel's, will crumble under public view.
Romania too is vulnerable. It wants to import about 900 tons of Canadian heavy water to run the two power reactors it is now building. If Romania won't account for Norway's 12.5 tons, Canada will find it awkward to send 900 more tons to such a buyer. Romania will either face more controls from Canada, or two empty reactors.
Norway can also demand its heavy water back. The water was sold on condition that its use could be verified. If it can't be, the buyers have no right to keep it. Norway never agreed to let its water be used for unrestricted purposes. This demand could even be made of India, because official Swiss records show that Germany's 20 tons are in Bombay.
The question for Norway is whether to make these issues public. If Norway does, it can convict all the importers in the court of world opinion and put the blame where it belongs. Norway can also force other countries to stand up and oppose proliferation in the United Nations. If instead, Norway makes a series of weak compromises, it will continue to look and be guilty itself. The choice seems obvious for the country of the Nobel Prize.
Gary Milhollin is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.