Israeli A-Bombs and Norwegian Heavy Water: Arms Control Through Public Pressure

Remarks in Rjukan, Norway

Despite its small size, Norway has made a large contribution to the spread of nuclear weapons–essentially by selling heavy water. According to the Norwegian government, by 1987 Norway had produced 440 to 450 tons of heavy water, and virtually every kilogram of it was exported. Norway started a small heavy water reactor of its own at Halden in 1957, but Norway imported 16 tons of American heavy water to fill it. This left Norway free to sell its own water on the world market–at a higher price. American heavy water was available only with inspection rights; Norwegian water was usually available without such rights.

Twenty tons went into Israel’s Dimona reactor in 1963, which has now made enough plutonium for well over 100 atomic bombs.

One hundred fifty-one tons went into France’s Celestin reactors in the 1960s, which made the tritium for the first French hydrogen bomb, set off in 1968. Since then, these reactors have produced both plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons. France also imported about 150 tons of heavy water from the United States, at roughly the same time. France used the American water to run the French civilian heavy water reactors, leaving the Norwegian water free for bombs.

Twenty-seven point seven tons went to India, which smuggled 15.2 tons through Germany and Switzerland in 1983, and smuggled 12.5 tons through Romania in 1986, all for uninspected reactors. These reactors too are making plutonium for atomic bombs.

Eighty tons went to Sweden for a reactor that Sweden hoped would produce plutonium for its secret nuclear weapon program. The Swedes canceled the program in 1970; otherwise, Norwegian heavy water would have made bombs in Norway’s back yard.

In April 1990, Israel agreed to return 10.5 of the 21 tons it had imported (one more ton was shipped in 1970), ending more than three years of controversy over Israel’s use of the water to make atomic bombs. The controversy started in 1986, when the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, which I direct, revealed Norway’s right to inspect the water. Working through the American and Norwegian press, and enlisting the help of Norwegian legislators, the Project forced Israel to account for at least part of Norway’s water. The Project also publicized the fact that most of Norway’s heavy water exports had gone directly into nuclear weapon programs around the world. As a result, Norway stopped exporting heavy water permanently.

This campaign was only partially successful. Israel was not made to account for the plutonium that it had already produced with the heavy water–now the backbone of Israel’s substantial nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, the Wisconsin Project’s work in Norway is an example of how, by forcing governments to live up to their international commitments, nuclear proliferation can at least be slowed if not stopped. When quiet diplomacy through official channels fails, as it did in Norway and Israel, international media campaigns can be an effective alternative.

Background: Israel’s Nuclear Program

Israel’s nuclear program began and still operates in secret. But in the 1980s, the crucial role played by foreign suppliers began to be revealed. Norway was only one of the countries that helped Israel become the world’s sixth most powerful nuclear state.

In the late 1950s, France built Israel’s Dimona reactor, still the main source of Israel’s plutonium–its main nuclear weapon material. The reactor’s heavy water, essential to achieve a chain reaction, was supplied by Norway in 1959, which sent twenty tons. In 1963, when the reactor started operation, the United States supplied four more tons.

From 1965 through 1969, U.S. nuclear specialists inspected Dimona every year, looking for signs of nuclear weapon production. It is not clear whether they found any, but in 1968 the Central Intelligence Agency reported to President Johnson that Israel had already made an atomic bomb.

In 1976, the CIA told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a secret briefing that Israel was building bombs with plutonium from Dimona. In 1980, the former head of the French Atomic Energy Commission, Francis Perrin, acknowledged that French companies had helped build a plant in Israel to extract plutonium from Dimona’s spent fuel and that France and Israel had helped each other design nuclear weapons.

In 1982 French investigative journalist Pierre Pean, who had gained access to the official French files on Dimona, published Les Deux Bombes, a book revealing that Dimona’s cooling circuits were two to three times larger than necessary for a 24-megawatt reactor–proof that Dimona had always been intended to make bomb- quantities of plutonium. The book also confirmed that French technicians had built a plutonium extraction plant at the same site. According to Pean, Israel had extracted enough plutonium from spent fuel for a nuclear weapon by 1966 or 1967.

Norway’s Inspection Rights

On November 10, 1986, the Wisconsin Project released its study, “Israel’s Nuclear Shadow,” which traced Israel’s nuclear development. The study revealed that Israel was using Norwegian heavy water in the Dimona reactor, and that Israel had promised both the United States and Norway that it would not use their heavy water to make nuclear weapons and would allow both countries to inspect the water to verify that the peaceful use pledge was being kept. Articles based on the study appeared in the U.S. and Norwegian press the following week.

The Project’s study was timed to follow the revelations of Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli technician who had worked at Dimona for eight years, and who had recounted his experience a month earlier in the London Sunday Times. Vanunu described Dimona’s underground plutonium factory, offered evidence that Israel was making thermonuclear weapons, and said that the Dimona reactor had been scaled up twice before he arrived in 1977.

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry flatly rejected the Project’s findings. It said that as far as it knew, Israel was using the heavy water for peaceful purposes.

The Media Campaign

On January 21, 1987, the Project published its first op-ed in Arbeiderbladet, the newspaper allied with the governing Labor party. On February 6, 1987, the Norwegian Broadcasting Company (the official state network) followed with an hour-long radio documentary on Norway’s heavy water exports, including interviews with British physicist Frank Barnaby and me. Barnaby and I both charged that Israel was making nuclear weapons and urged Norway to exercise its inspection rights.

A week later the Norwegian government reacted. It said that it would ask Israel informally to allow an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Israel rejected this request in April, stating that it would be impossible to distinguish Norwegian heavy water from stocks received from other sources. Israel also said that the IAEA was biased against Israel and would not perform a fair inspection.

In May the Wisconsin Project published a second article in Arbeiderbladet, rebutting Israel’s claims and pointing out that Israel was the first country in history to break an inspection pledge on a “peaceful” nuclear import. The Project argued that if Israel would not allow an IAEA inspection, Norway should exercise its right under the 1959 agreement to demand that Israel return the heavy water.

At the end of September 1987, Israel formally denied the request for an IAEA inspection. In October Norway sent a technical team to Israel but the team was not allowed to conduct an inspection. On November 18, Foreign Policy magazine published my article entitled, “Heavy Water Cheaters,” which described the critical role that heavy water had played in the French, Indian and Israeli nuclear weapon programs, and called for stronger enforcement of supplier controls. “Heavy Water Cheaters” generated front page stories in Norway’s national newspapers, stories in the American and Israeli press, and radio and TV broadcasts in Norway and the United States, intensifying the pressure on Norway to pursue its inspection rights. The Project also revealed that Israel had admitted privately that it was operating Dimona with Norwegian heavy water, therefore giving Norway the clear right to apply Israel’s peaceful use pledge to at least some of the plutonium Dimona had produced.

In April 1988, Israel offered a compromise: it would allow Norwegian representatives to inspect about nine tons of heavy water which, it claimed, were all that remained of the original 21-ton purchase after operating losses. The inspection would take place away from Dimona, Norway would not have access to any Israeli plutonium, and Israel would not even guarantee that the water inspected was Norwegian. The Project published an op-ed in Arbeiderbladet terming the offer “a heavy water whitewash.” I traveled to Norway on May 1 to meet with members of Parliament and the Norwegian diplomats negotiating with Israel. I urged in news interviews that Norway reject the compromise. During the visit, I also publicized diversions of Norwegian heavy water by West Germany in 1983 and Romania in 1986, increasing the Norwegian government’s embarrassment over the issue and fueling demands by opposition politicians for a more responsible nuclear export policy.

On June 9, an Israeli delegation in Norway nevertheless initialed the proposed compromise. Several Norwegian parliamentarians, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Kare Willoch, criticized the agreement on radio and in the newspapers, and Norway’s Foreign Minister then agreed not to approve the agreement without the consent of the Foreign Relations Committee. I visited Norway again at the end of June and met with Mr. Willoch, after which he announced in a televised press conference that he could not support the compromise. He said: “I find it impossible for Norway to give up its right to inspect not only in the future but also to find out what happened in the past….” This statement effectively killed the compromise and threw the issue back into the arena of bilateral negotiations, where it would remain for nearly another two years.

After the death of the compromise, the Project continued to publish articles and work with journalists. The object was to pressure the Norwegian government to hold Israel accountable for the plutonium it was still making with Norwegian heavy water. The Project urged Norway to seek U.S. assistance in making Israel open up its nuclear program. But American leaders struck a hands-off posture throughout the debate, saying that while they supported Norway’s efforts “in principle,” the U.S. involvement had not been officially requested. They also said that they were satisfied that the four tons of U.S.-origin heavy water in Israel were being held according to the terms of the Israeli-American sales agreement.

On November 2, 1988, Norwegian Broadcasting aired a 50-minute television documentary, “Norwegian Heavy Water For Nuclear Weapons,” based on the Wisconsin Project’s work and documenting the Project’s charge that most of Norway’s heavy water exports around the world were being used to make nuclear weapons. In response to the program, the Norwegian government announced that it would permanently end heavy water exports.

The inspection issue was not finally resolved until April 1990, when Israel announced that it had agreed to sell 10.5 tons of heavy water back to Norway rather than allow a Norwegian inspection in Israel. Israel maintained that 10.5 tons were all that remained of the original purchase after operating losses at Dimona. Unfortunately, Israel refused to allow inspection of the plutonium illegally made with Norway’s heavy water–enough for about one hundred atomic bombs. Israel also kept about eight of Norway’s original 21 tons of heavy water. According to the Project’s calculation, Israel had exaggerated spillage and evaporation rates at Dimona and still had about 18.5 rather than 10.5 tons of the original purchase on hand. Socialist Left leader Theo Koritzinsky acknowledged that Norway could not even be sure that the heavy water Israel returned would be Norwegian, but he called the arrangement “the next best solution” to inspection.


Limited as this victory was, it marked the first time anyone had pressured Israel into doing anything significant in its nuclear program that it did not want to do. The three-year controversy offers three important lessons:

The danger of secrecy. The 1959 sale of heavy water was ostensibly a peaceful nuclear export. There was no reason why it should have remained hidden until 1986. Norway has claimed that Israel wanted the deal to be secret to avoid scrutiny of Dimona; Israel has claimed that Norway wanted the deal to be secret to avoid embarrassment from the sale. Regardless of who is right, it is now clear that if the deal had been public from the start, Norway would have been obliged to inspect the water from the start, and Israel could not have used it to make plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The power of media pressure. The Norwegian government had no desire to enforce its rights in Israel. But heavy media pressure created so much embarrassment that it had no choice. This was especially true after opposition parties in Parliament became involved. To maintain this pressure, the Project wrote six articles in Norwegian newspapers, wrote several articles in U.S. newspapers, generated and provided the background for more than thirty news stories in the Norwegian and U.S. press, inspired and helped make a television documentary, and gave repeated briefings to key members of the Norwegian parliament. Without the political momentum that this work generated, the Norwegian government would have quietly sent this issue to an early grave.

Enforcing supplier controls. Norway is only one of the nuclear supplier countries. Others, such as Germany, have export records that are worse. Yet on paper, almost all of these countries require sellers of sensitive goods to get licenses, and almost all require end users to pledge peaceful use and even allow inspection of the sensitive goods they buy. It is vital to make the suppliers’ actions match their words. Now that Iraq has shown everyone how easy it is to buy a nuclear weapon program, it is up to the supplier countries to change their ways. If they must be embarrassed into doing so, it will be well worth the effort.