New Nuclear Follies?

The New York Times
November 25, 1987, p. A27

For nearly 30 years, countries have sold nuclear materials around the world with the requirements that the importing nations promise to use them for peaceful purposes and permit on-site inspection. These two pledges are the main barrier between civil and military use of the atom.

It now appears that – for the first time in history – a country, Israel, has broken the peaceful use pledge. It also appears that a second country, France, may have broken it, and that the civilian exports of a third, Norway – possibly made without the pledge – have gone freely into bombs. With this, the entire framework of nonproliferation seems threatened. Does anyone care?

Israel has just admitted that, for more than 20 years, it has been making plutonium in its Dimona reactor with heavy water imported from Norway. Heavy water, deuterium oxide, is essential to the manufacture of plutonium and tritium: the nuclear weapon materials.

Israel had promised to restrict the plutonium to peaceful use and to allow international inspections of plutonium made with Norway’s heavy water. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, however, Israel is using the heavy water to make bombs. And Israel refused to allow any inspections.

Israel may also have made plutonium by using heavy water imported from the United States under similar pledges. America admits that heavy water sent to Dimona was not inspected for the first 17 years after it was exported. Moreover, America has not asked for the kind of inspection that would show what the water was used for.

France established and continues to build its thermonuclear arsenal with tritium made with heavy water imported from Norway. France gave Norway a string of certificates stating the ”end use” of each heavy water shipment, but Norway won’t reveal what the certificates say. If they don’t require peaceful use, Norway has deliberately helped France make the hydrogen bomb. If they do require it, France, too, has broken the peaceful use pledge.

Neither world security nor the nuclear export trade can accept such a breakdown in nuclear protocol. The nonproliferation treaty, and every other effort to combat proliferation since the 1960’s, assume that the peaceful use and inspection pledges will be kept. To preserve the credibility of their policies against proliferation, Norway and the United States must now enforce their rights.

Under terms of the export agreements, both Norway and the United States have the right to conduct inspections in Israel to assure that the heavy water is and has been used for peaceful purposes. If Israel refuses, both would have the right to withdraw the heavy water summarily. Norway can also demand assurances that France has used its heavy water in peaceful applications.

All these rights are clear. Enforcing them would unquestionably slow the spread of the bomb. They are nondiscriminatory and don’t raise regional issues. They are the one sure way to deal with proliferation.

Why aren’t they used? Why won’t the State Department, perpetually in search of something to do about proliferation, inspect its heavy water in Israel? Why won’t it ask Israel to honor Norway’s rights? Why won’t Norway disclose and enforce whatever rights it has in France? The answer seems to be that the United States endorses Israel’s bomb, Norway endorses France’s and that both America and Norway value smooth relations with their allies above nonproliferation.

World attention will soon focus on the superpower summit meeting, where a minor arms control pact will be signed. In the rest of the world, which is less stable, countries will continue to make bombs they really intend to use. Perhaps it is time to shift our gaze and watch the risks that count.

Gary Milhollin is professor of law at the University of Wisconsin. This article is adapted from a longer version in Foreign Policy.