May 11, 1987
In 1965, Kirk Douglas led a group of courageous Norwegians across the silver screen to Telemark. Their objective? Norwegian heavy water. They would — and did — stop the Nazis from using it to make atomic bombs.
In 1987, a second group of courageous Norwegians — this time political leaders — must stop Israel from succeeding where the Nazis failed.
Israel imported twenty tonnes of Norwegian heavy water in 1959, pledging peaceful use and on-site inspection. This past March, Norway finally requested inspection after repeated reports that Israel was making atomic bombs. A week or so ago, Israel turned Norway down. Israel said it was too difficult to distinguish Norway’s heavy water from other heavy water it had imported, and thus Norway’s water couldn’t be tracked. Israel refused to say who the other exporters were.
Israel has thus set a precedent. It has become the first country in history to break the inspection pledge on a nuclear import.
Now, Norway must decide what to do. It should keep the following facts in mind:
- Heavy water in tonne quantities is used only in reactors. There is only one reactor in Israel that uses heavy water, the one at Dimona. It was built secretly by France in the late 1950s and started in 1963. It is Israel’s only source of plutonium, a nuclear weapon material. The CIA says Israel has been building atomic bombs with plutonium since 1968.
- In 1963 when Dimona started, there were only two sources of heavy water in the world: the United States and Norway. France and Canada planned to produce heavy water, but French production did not begin until 1968, and Canada was a heavy water importer until the late 1970s. Israel produced heavy water only in laboratory quantities. Therefore, it was physically impossible to start Dimona without U.S. or Norwegian heavy water.
- Israel imported four tonnes of U.S. heavy water in 1963, under inspection. It has imported none since. This was not enough to start Dimona, which required at least eighteen tonnes. Therefore, most of Dimona’s water had to be Norwegian.
- France and Canada were the only other possessors of heavy water in the early 1960s. But France had imported all its heavy water from Norway and the United States. France had pledged to restrict it to peaceful use and not to reexport it without permission. Therefore, even if Israel got a secret shipment from France before Dimona started, the water would have been illegally diverted from Norwegian or U.S. stocks, giving Israel no right to use it. A diversion from U.S. stocks would have violated Euratom inspection, and no such violation has been reported. A diversion from Norwegian stocks would not have been detected because Norway’s stocks were not under inspection.
- Canada has never exported any heavy water to Israel.
- By 1968, when France began to make its own heavy water, France required inspection of all its nuclear exports. There is no French heavy water under inspection in Israel. Thus, France never sent Israel any French heavy water.
- Therefore all the heavy water Israel has ever imported has come from Norway except the four tonnes from the United States. This means that there is no factual basis for Israel’s claim that it received heavy water from diverse sources, or that it cannot identify Norway’s heavy water.
- When heavy water is irradiated in a reactor, tritium is formed in it. The tritium cannot be totally removed. Thus, it is possible to determine with certainty whether Norway’s heavy water has been in a reactor.
- If Norway’s water has been in a reactor — which could only be Dimona — Norway has the right to inspect any plutonium the reactor makes to insure that it has not been put into bombs. This right was given by the 1959 agreement.
- Reactors such as Dimona only lose about .5% of their heavy water each year. This means that if Norway’s water went into Dimona — which is inevitable — about eighty percent of it is still there after twenty four years of operation.
What do these facts show? At least, they show Israel’s response for what it is: a fabrication. Israel knows precisely how much heavy water it got from Norway, where the heavy water is, and what has been done with it. Israel also knows what it did with the heavy water it got from the United States. Israel’s refusal to account for what happened to the water has no basis. It is a clear breach of the 1959 agreement and entitles Norway to remedies.
The agreement says explicitly that Norway can get its heavy water back if Israel refuses inspection. Retrieving heavy water is simple — it is shipped in barrels. Its loss to Israel would probably shut down the Dimona reactor, the key to Israel’s nuclear weapon program.
Should Norway demand its water back? If it doesn’t, it must watch helplessly while Israel uses it to make atomic bombs. If it does, it will take a stand that other suppliers must support. The entire world nuclear trade is based on the assumption that importers will not break the inspection pledge. If countries could import nuclear materials under the pledge, and then break it, the nuclear supplier countries would simply be selling bomb factories. Not even the United States could endorse such a breach. If Norway wanted to, it could embarrass Israel and isolate it diplomatically.
A courageous stand by Norway could have very great effects. By its example, it could cause other suppliers to keep a closer eye on their recipients. It might even start the world thinking that there should be fewer countries with nuclear weapons, instead of more. If Norway could achieve that, the heroes of Telemark would be proud.
Gary Milhollin is Professor of Law, University of Wisconsin Law School.