International Herald Tribune
October 7, 1988, p. 6
WASHINGTON – Norway is facing three scandals this fall, all caused by the sale of heavy water, which is used in nuclear reactors that produce plutonium, the preferred material for making atomic bombs.
Heavy water, enriched in deuterium, is difficult to produce; Norway is one of the few countries to export it. Part of its production has gone astray.
Israel’s Dimona reactor, which the CIA says is producing plutonium for bombs, is being operated with Norwegian heavy water sold in 1959. India’s newest reactors are also making weapons-grade plutonium, using Norwegian heavy water diverted by a West German firm in 1983. And Romania appears to have illegally re-exported Norwegian heavy water it bought in 1986, probably to India or Israel.
All the importers broke their word. Israel pledged to use the Norwegian water for peaceful purposes. and to allow on-site inspection of its reactor. Israel now refuses inspection. West German authorities gave a German firm a certificate promising the water would be used only in that country, but the firm sent the water to India. Romania promised not to re-export the Norwegian water without permission. but will not say where it is.
Norway may have been naive, but the importers are in open breach of agreements. Oslo should put the blame where it belongs.
Israel is offering a “compromise.” It admits running the Dimona reactor with Norwegian heavy water since 1963 and thus making plutonium — probably enough by now for more than 100 atomic bombs.
Israel offers only to let Norway inspect 9 tons of heavy water in drums outside the reactor —all that remains, Israel claims, of 20 tons imported in 1959 and 1 ton imported in 1970. This offer could never be accepted by the United States or the International Atomic Energy Agency, both of which demand to see all the plutonium made by a reactor using even the slightest amount of controlled heavy water.
In the West German case, the shipment consisted of 15 tons of heavy water licensed to be sent to Frankfurt. The plane left Oslo one day in December 1983, landed in Basel, then flew to Bombay after a stop in Dubai. The flight plan is in the records of the Swiss Air Ministry.
Romania still has not said where the Norwegian water is.
In each case. Norway has a choice: It can stand on its rights or it can compromise. Israel’s offer is unacceptable, and West Germany and Romania will make similar offers if Norway accepts Israel’s. Oslo must confront these countries publicly and demand that they keep their word. Confronting Israel would make its bomb a public issue — something Israel has tried to avoid. For Israel to be branded as the first country to break the pledges of peaceful use and inspection would look bad in the United Nations. Norway should force a de-bate on what these pledges mean, and whether other countries, America in-chided, should help enforce them.
The West German nuclear industry is already embroiled in scandal. The diversion of the Norwegian water is the most serious charge. It violates the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which forbids the transfer of heavy water without international controls. West Germany’s position, like Israel’s, would crumble under public view.
Romania too is vulnerable. It wants to import about 900 tons of Canadian heavy water to run two reactors it is building. If Romania will not account for Norway’s 12.5 tons, Canada will find it awkward to send 900 tons to such a buyer. Romania will either face more stringent controls from Canada, or two empty reactors.
The question for Norway is whether to make these issues public. By doing so it could convict all three importers in the court of world opinion. Norwegian authorities could demand the heavy water back. And Norway could force other countries to stand up in the United Nations and oppose proliferation. If, instead, it makes a series of weak compromises, Oslo will continue to look, and be, guilty.
The writer is a resident scholar of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. He contributed this to the International Herald Tribune.