Bombs for the World

Die Zeit (English Translation)
January 13, 1989, p. 44

Why should Germany, an otherwise responsible country, shelter nuclear blackmarketeers? Germany’s help to Libya’s poison gas plant–just revealed by the New York Times–is but a footnote to an even more sordid history of nuclear exports. For at least a decade, German firms have been the main suppliers of secret A-bomb programs around the world.

To South Africa German firms sent low-enriched uranium, which multiplied that country’s ability to make high-enriched uranium for bombs; to Israel went heavy water, which increased the output of Israel’s bomb-making reactor at Dimona; to Argentina went heavy water that could run a secret bomb-making reactor in the future; to Pakistan went an entire factory to help process uranium for bombs, plus tritium and tritium-making equipment that multiply the explosive power of its first-generation bombs; to India went “reflector material”–probably beryllium for the core of the bomb itself–and enough heavy water to let India run for the first time three large bomb-making reactors outside international controls. German firms have been the greatest single supplier of the South Asian nuclear arms race, and the greatest single threat to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Most of the exports were expressly forbidden by German pledges under the Treaty, and raise the question whether Germany cares about the Treaty at all.

Outside protests have failed. A U.S. memo in 1981 asked Germany to stop the Hempel group in Dusseldorf from sending enriched uranium to South Africa and heavy water to Argentina. Switzerland asked in 1985 for information about the same Hempel group’s sale of heavy water to India through Zurich. A U.S. memo in 1986 asked Germany to stop Hempel from sending India heavy water through a Swiss subsidiary, and another U.S. memo warned of an even larger secret scheme to sell heavy water “coordinated from within West Germany by Hempel Company officials.” Norway asked Germany in 1988 to investigate Hempel’s sale of Norwegian heavy water to India through Basel. In every case, Germany refused to provide information, investigate, or acknowledge any gap in its laws.

There are no benign explanations for this behavior: Germany is committed to exports, but what country honestly prefers export earnings to world security? Negligence in regulation exists, but doesn’t linger for a decade. The truth lies deeper, and has finally exasperated U.S. officials. They have named the Libyan poison gas culprit–Imhausen-Chemie–outright to the Times, and even revealed that President Reagan asked Chancellor Kohl for help in November. They also say privately that the German nuclear culprits are benefitting from the same web of corruption that managed to bribe all the German nuclear utilities in the recent waste scandal.

Are things really as bad as they look? Is Germany really corrupt at high levels? The Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, who run the country, have banded together in Parliament to defend Hempel despite the unquestioned fact of his outrageous deals_. Rather than shun a blackmarketeer, as elected officials would normally do, Germany’s ruling parties argue that Hempel has not violated German law! They refuse to ask whether the law should be changed, or whether he and others like him have violated Germany’s Treaty obligations. Their behavior encourages one to believe the worst.

Germany must act soon to save its reputation. It should condemn its guilty companies simply on moral grounds. Regardless of gaps in its law, Germany should not defend the sale of nuclear and chemical bomb making materials to the third world. If German foreign trade law is inadequate, as it obviously is, Germany should admit that fact and change it.

But most important, Germany should pursue the items illegally taken. Many of the nuclear exports lacked the required licenses and moved through conspiracies with the recipients. The items did not go to outer space–they are here on earth in known locations. If a thief stole Mr. Kohl’s car and sold it to his neighbor, would Mr. Kohl watch it being driven to work every day without saying anything? The surest way to halt the nuclear black market is for countries to publicly demand their goods back. Norway has just asked India to account for the Norwegian heavy water that Hempel’s group delivered to India illegally in 1983. Norway may confront India in the United Nations if India refuses. Germany should now demand publicly that its recipients account for their illegal gains.

Germany can still show the world that it is not a renegade exporter of mass destruction, but time is short.