October 24, 1987
At the end of last month, Israel finally rejected Norway’s request for international inspection of the heavy water Norway sent to Israel in 1959. Norway wanted to insure that the water had not been used to make atomic bombs. Israel said “no.” As a result, Norway’s foreign minister has announced that Norway will do its own inspection, a right that Norway clearly has. These developments pose two questions: first, what does Israel’s response reveal, and second, what should a Norwegian inspection do?
The Dimona reactor is the only facility in Israel that uses heavy water in ton quantities. Since 1963, Dimona has been making plutonium. The CIA and almost everyone else think the plutonium has gone into atomic bombs. Norway’s exports are the only known source of the heavy water needed to start Dimona and keep it running. The exports were either directly from Norway–twenty tonnes in 1959–or indirect by way of France–which is said to have reexported several tonnes of Norwegian water secretly to Israel in 1960. Israel was able to make small amounts of heavy water itself in a pilot plant, but nothing near what it took to start Dimona.
If Israel had not used Norway’s water in Dimona, international inspection would have been easy. Israel could have shown the inspectors the unused water in drums, allowed the drums to be sampled, and sealed them up again until the next inspection. This is the standard practice for heavy water in storage. The fact that Israel refused to do this is strong evidence that Norway’s water has been used.
Israel’s excuse for not allowing international inspection was that the International Atomic Energy Agency is “biased” against Israel. This objection is ridiculous: the Agency has been inspecting U.S. heavy water in Israel for many years without objection. If the IAEA can inspect U.S. heavy water in Israel without bias, it can inspect Norwegian heavy water in Israel without bias. In fact, the Agency is only an accountant. It comes in and looks at the books. Israel is like a business, suspected of diverting money, that has hidden its records because the auditor may be unfair.
Norway itself could clarify the situation. There is no longer any reason to keep the Israeli export agreement secret. Indeed, if the agreement had been public in 1959, the current situation would not have come up. Everyone would have known about the inspection right and Norway would have been compelled to use it long ago. Nor is there any reason not to publish a list of Norway’s other nuclear exports. The government should describe the “laboratory equipment” sold to Israel by a Norwegian company that specialized in processing plutonium. It should also reveal the amount of heavy water sold to France, and the terms on which the exports were made. If there are more agreements like the one for Israel’s heavy water, the sooner they are public the better. In peaceful exports for civilian purposes, there is no reason for secrecy.
A Norwegian national inspection can accomplish two things in Israel: it can discover whether Norway’s water has made atomic bombs in the past, and can prevent it from making them in the future. Norway’s long experience with heavy water provides the experts to do the job.
With respect to the past, Norway can ask Israel what it has done with the heavy water since 1959. That fact is in records that Israel can show to prove peaceful use. If the records say that the water has not been used, Israel could prove that fact by exhibiting the water in drums for sampling. Tests for tritium and deuterium concentration would reveal whether the records were right. If the records say that the water has been in a reactor–which could only be Dimona–Norway has the right to peaceful use of the plutonium the reactor has made.
Norway can also ask to see the water. Even if the water has been in Dimona since 1963, about eighty percent of it is still left. Reactors such as Dimona only lose about .5% of their heavy water each year. Once the water is identified as Norwegian, Norway has a right to seal it in drums and prevent its further use except in inspected locations. Israel would then have a choice: either stop using the water, or use it in Dimona and put the reactor’s plutonium under inspection. Israel would, no doubt, stop using the water. This would probably shut the reactor down, and halt Israeli bomb production. Thus, regardless of what Norway’s heavy water has been used for in the past, a national inspection would stop the water from making bombs in the future.
There seems to be every reason to demand a national inspection, and do so at once. Israel has taken nine months to refuse international inspection. It will probably take as long as it can to respond to a national inspection. If Israel refuses that, it will breach the export agreement. Norway can then demand its heavy water back. This too would probably shut down the reactor. Since Dimona is now reported to be making about ten bombs’ worth of plutonium per year, Norway should push for a quick solution. For every six months that Norway waits, Israel can make five more bombs with heavy water.
Gary Milhollin is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.