A Heavy Water Whitewash

Arbeiderbladet (Oslo)
April 20, 1988

Seventeen months ago, the world learned of Norway’s nuclear deal with Israel. The deal was simple: Israel got 20 tons of heavy water and Norway got two promises. The first was that Israel would not use the heavy water to make atomic bombs–Israel would restrict it to “peaceful use.” The second was that Norway could do on-site inspections, to be sure that the peaceful use pledge was kept.

Heavy water does not go into atomic bombs; it runs reactors that make plutonium that goes into atomic bombs. In 1945, plutonium made the world’s first nuclear explosion and destroyed Nagasaki. So Israel’s peaceful use pledge meant that none of the plutonium made with Norway’s heavy water could go into atomic bombs, and the inspection pledge meant that Norway would have the right to keep track of the plutonium. The heavy water went in 1959, and Norway’s last inspection was in 1961, two years before Israel started its reactor at Dimona.

After the deal became known seventeen months ago, Norway began asking for inspections. During negotiations, Israel admitted that it used Norway’s heavy water to start the Dimona reactor in 1963. High sources in both governments have confirmed the admission. Thus, Israel has admitted making plutonium that Norway has a right to inspect and restrict to peaceful use. The Dimona reactor loses very little heavy water in operation, so Norway’s water is still making plutonium in Israel today.

The situation has great implications for the Middle East. If Norway enforces its rights, Israel’s nuclear arsenal will have to be scaled back or dismantled, because the Dimona reactor is Israel’s only source of plutonium, and plutonium is the backbone of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The has reported for more than twenty years that Israel is making bombs with Dimona’s plutonium, and Israel has just sent a technician to prison for revealing how many bombs there are. Because Norway’s rights cover all the plutonium made with Norwegian water, Norway has a great opportunity: it can slow or halt the spread of nuclear arms in the Middle East.

But Norway’s foreign ministry does not see an opportunity–only an embarrassment. And to end the embarrassment, it would end Norway’s rights. In one or two weeks, it will send a delegation to Israel to accept a humiliating offer. Israel is offering to set aside 20 tons of heavy water for Norwegian inspection, or to sell 20 tons of heavy water back to Norway, with no guarantee that the water will be Norwegian, and no explanation of what Norway’s water has been used for. Israel apparently thinks that Norway will agree–that a team of Norwegians will really fly to Israel every few months for the next several years to look at someone else’s heavy water. And, Israel thinks that Norway will forget about the peaceful use pledge, which covers the plutonium made with Norway’s water. Israel justifies its offer by saying that it has mixed Norway’s water with water from “other suppliers” and can no longer tell which water is Norway’s.

Israel’s offer is ridiculous. Israel has a duty to comply with the peaceful use pledge–not to run a heavy water carnival. To comply with the pledge, Israel must explain what it has done with the plutonium that Norway’s water has made. Plutonium–not heavy water–is the material that makes bombs. It was to keep track of plutonium that Norway got the peaceful use and inspection pledges in the first place. If heavy water did not make plutonium, one could export it like beer.

It would be simple for Israel to comply. Every reactor–including Dimona–has operating records. Those records show when the reactor started, how much heavy water it used, where the heavy water came from, and how much plutonium was made. One does not run industrial plants without knowing what goes in and out. Israel admits that Norway’s 20 tons went into the reactor in 1963. Everybody knows that plutonium has come out. The only question is whether other heavy water was in the reactor too. Israel has told Norway that the 20 tons were only half as much as the reactor needed. If that is true, then half of the plutonium the reactor has made is covered by Norway’s rights. “Proportionality” is widely recognized in international agreements. What of the other 20 tons? Where did they come from? In the early 1960s, the only source was France, which had built the Dimona reactor. But the only heavy water France had available without controls was the water that France had imported earlier from Norway. Sources familiar with the French nuclear program say that France shipped several tons of Norwegian water to Israel by air in 1960, despite France’s promise not to do so. Israel seems to be hiding the fact that Dimona has used only Norwegian heavy water.

The final irony involves Romania. In 1986, Norway sold Romania 12.5 tons of heavy water. No one can figure out why Romania bought it. Canada is building a large Romanian reactor that will need hundreds of tons of heavy water, but Canada will supply it all. Norway’s 12.5 tons is insignificant for the reactor, which won’t even start soon. Also, Romania is about to start a heavy water production plant of its own, and has a pilot plant that makes heavy water for research. The only conceivable need for 12.5 tons in 1986 would be for reexport. Romania is the only East Bloc country with close ties to Israel, and there are reports that Romania made an air shipment of heavy water to Israel shortly after Norway’s import arrived. Norway’s water was covered by international inspection, but the inspectors cannot look at the water–they can only inspect the plutonium the water makes if it goes into a reactor. Thus, Romania could have reexported Norway’s water without anyone knowing, or could have exported Romanian water from the pilot plant and used Norway’s water to replace it, or could have exported a larger quantity including both countries’ water.

The possible reexports from France and Romania show how insulting Israel’s offer is. Israel could take water it got from France in 1960, and from Romania in 1986, to make the 20 tons that Norway would be allowed to inspect. Then, Norway would be going to Israel to see its own water–but with the label: “other suppliers” or “origin unknown.”

Israel is simply thumbing its nose at its obligations. Israel refuses to account for the only thing that is important–the plutonium made with Norway’s heavy water. Israel says the plutonium is “unavailable.” Nor will it reveal Dimona’s records. In effect, Israel is saying, “we didn’t keep the peaceful use pledge covering your heavy water, and we are sorry. But here is some other heavy water you can look at, or even buy from us if you like. We hope you are satisfied.” Israel is like the man who tells the bank he is borrowing money to build a house, but uses it to traffic in illegal drugs. After the drug business is going well, and the bank finds out, the man says: “thank you very much; here is some money back.” Should the bank consider the problem “resolved?” Or should it call the police?

There are police to be called. Norway can publicly ask the United States for help in getting Israel to meet its obligations. The United States could not refuse and still claim to oppose proliferation. Norway could also censure Israel in the United Nations. No country–even the United States–could defend an open violation of the peaceful use pledge.

Norway owes the world more than a whitewash. If it really cares about proliferation, it must do more than attend Israel’s heavy water show. Because of years of lax controls, Norway has helped spread the bomb to the Middle East. It has one more chance to do what is right, and should not miss it.

Gary Milhollin is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.