The Case of Missing Heavy Water

The Washington Times
June 16, 1988, p. E1.

In the case of the purloined heavy water, Gary Milhollin is on the trail.

Something of a private citizen turned private eye, he has earned an international reputation as a tracker of black market sales of nuclear materials to Third World nations racing to get the bomb.

“If countries are doing things that they’re not supposed to, I try to find out about it and embarrass them in the newspapers,” says the University of Wisconsin law professor and Washington-based nuclear arms proliferation specialist. “That’s one of the things I like to do.”

Mr Milhollin, who is deadly serious about what he considers a deadly serious business, has charged India with diverting nuclear materials from international inspection or secretly importing them to build a nuclear arsenal.

He has accused Israel of breaking the “peaceful-use pledge” -cornerstone of civilian nuclear exports- and even suggested that the United States may be engaged in “selective proliferation.” Most recently, he uncovered clues that point to nuclear exports from Norway being used to produce bombs.

“He’s a crusader,” says Per Paust, press attache at the Norwegian Embassy here. “He’s monitoring everything going on in the [nuclear] reactor world, trying to uncover any attempts at utilizing reactors for unpeaceful purposes.”

One source at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency first describes Mr. Milhollin as a “loyal dissenter” of U.S. policy, then adds: “Truth be known he’s a pain in the side of the establishment.”

Central to Mr. Milhollin’s concern is the international trade in heavy water, or deuterium oxide, which allows reactors to run on natural uranium as opposed to expensive and tightly controlled enriched uranium.

Under the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, plutonium and enriched uranium-the materials used to make the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs-are exported internationally only after recipients pledge to confine use to peaceful purposes and accept systematic inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Although the same peaceful-use pledge applies to heavy water, the material is not subject to IAEA inspection if it goes to a country that is a member of the treaty.

That “loophole,” Mr. Milhollin says, has allowed malefactors to secretly re-export or divert heavy-water shipments to countries not subject to treaty controls.

Mr Milhollin describes the problem that this lack of oversight poses with a simple equation: Heavy water is used to run some reactors, a by-product of the nuclear reaction is plutonium and the plutonium can be used to make bombs.

Last month, the Norwegian government admitted that a 1983 sale of 15 tons of heavy water to a German company never reached Frankfurt as intended.

Instead, the pilot of the West African Airlines plane carrying the cargo made a last-minute flight change at Oslo Airport and flew to Basel, Switzerland. Then the cargo reportedly was shipped to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where it disappeared into the black market.

Three weeks later, the Norwegians announced that they were looking into whether a 12.5-ton shipment of heavy water sent to Romania in 1986 also had gone astray.

“It’s shipped out without a mechanism to determine whether it arrived” explains Mr. Milhollin, who says “circumstantial evidence” suggests the errant shipments went to India and Israel, respectively. “It just seems like another example of governmental incompetence, which is not rare in any country.”

According to experts, 20 tons of heavy water can produce enough plutonium to manufacture one Nagasaki-caliber bomb a year. Mr. Milhollin says the lack of controls on heavy water facilitates the spread of nuclear weapons to unstable countries in the Middle East and South Asia.

This represents a serious threat to world peace, says Mr. Milhollin, who is fearful that Third World countries would be more inclined than the superpowers to use nuclear weapons in an armed conflict. Treaties and alliances could then draw the United States and Soviet Union into a series of events beyond their control.

But government officials suggest that Mr. Milhollin overstates the scope of the problem-pointing out that heavy water itself is not a component of nuclear weapons.

“I’m not going to label him a fringe type, but the [International Atomic Energy Agency] takes a much more benign view of heavy water,” said one State Department source who asked not to be identified. “I don’t think anyone gets as exercised or as upset as he does.”

Mr. Milhollin also is criticized for a “confrontational style” and going against the grain of international diplomacy with public accusations based on circumstantial evidence. However, Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy, believes Mr. Milhollin is on to something.

“This is an issue that the professional non-proliferation community inside the government has over-looked for 20 years,” says Mr. Maynes, who has published two of Mr. Milhollin’s articles. “I think it’s an embarrassment. He’s bringing to light an issue that should have been looked at more carefully.”

Heavy water was not expected to be on the official agenda at last week’s IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna, Austria, but another State Department official said that, in light of recent events, it almost certainly would be discussed “around the periphery.”

Leonard Spector, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington and a leading authority on nuclear arms proliferation, agrees: “We know that one of the primary ways to stop the spread of the bomb to [certain countries] is to deny them the materials they need. Now here we are learning that a key commodity isn’t really controlled.

“I’m supposed to be a big expert in this field, and I didn’t know about this until [Mr. Milhollin] unearthed it.”

At 49, Gary L. Milhollin has the appearance of someone who works too hard and enjoys too little. His features are gaunt and his expression solemn, giving him the pained and all too serious look of a long-distance runner.

He operates out of a cluttered office at the Natural Resources Defense Council in downtown Washington. His desk is littered with stacks of documents and press clippings from around the world. There also is a small bottle of clear liquid labeled “Ontario Hydro Reactor Grade Heavy Water.”

“I enjoy pretty good relationships with all of the countries I’ve worked with,” he says, pointing to a colorful figurine of an elephant he received from the Indian Embassy at Christmas.

How does a university law professor become a nuclear arms proliferation specialist and authority on of all things, international trade of heavy water?

In Mr. Milhollin’s case, it appears to have been by accident-more precisely, the nuclear power plant accident at Three Mile Island, Pa.

Twelve years ago, he followed a friend’s suggestion and applied for a part-time administrative judgeship with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel.

With a mechanical engineering degree from Purdue and law degree from Georgetown University, he brought an unusual combination of technical and legal knowledge to the job.

As one of the NRC judges hearing testimony following the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, he came to the conclusion that the integrity of the plant management had been so compromised that it should be totally replaced before allowing the undamaged reactor to come back on line. His view did not prevail.

It was the critical juncture in his career, after which he became convinced that the benefits of nuclear energy were going to be smaller than originally thought.

“I decided that the main effect of exporting nuclear technology was going to be to spread the bomb around the world rather than produce a lot of cheap energy,” says Mr. Milhollin, who lives in Chevy Chase with his wife, Monique, and their two children.

Although he maintained his part-time post with the NRC, Mr. Milhollin shifted his research efforts at the University of Wisconsin from contracts and conflict of laws to nuclear arms proliferation.

He became intrigued with the trade of heavy water while preparing a 1984 NRA report on India’s nuclear power program. Three years ago he received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and, like an archaeologist on a dig, left the classroom for Washington to research the issue full time.

Poring over public records, newspaper reports and Indian government documents, he began putting together the pieces of an intricate puzzle. Using that information in connection with a close study of India’s known demand, supply and imports of heavy water, Mr. Milhollin concluded that India was obtaining heavy water under the table to run reactors outside international safeguards for the purpose of building a nuclear arsenal.

He broke onto the international scene in 1986 with an article published in Foreign Policy magazine under the headline “Dateline New Delhi: India’s Nuclear Cover Up.”

Excerpts of the article appeared in newspapers worldwide. India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974 and is in a heated arms race with neighboring Pakistan, angrily denied the charges. It refused, however, to produce any information to support the denial.

Mr. Milhollin struck again in the winter issue of Foreign Policy, with an article titled “Heavy Water Cheaters.” This time he charged, among other things, that Israel was using heavy water obtained from Norway in 1959-on the basis of a peaceful-use pledge-to build nuclear bombs at its secrecy-shrouded reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert.

The Israelis deny any improprieties and last week tentatively agreed to let Norway inspect some 10 tons of heavy water. But the Norwegians will not be allowed to visit Dimona to determine if the heavy water has been used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons.

In addition to what colleagues describe as his “extraordinary detective work,” Mr. Milhollin has become quite adept at working the news media. In Norway, he focused attention on the heavy water issue by writing newspaper opinion pieces and feeding reporters enticing bits of information.

“His revelations got media interest rolling,” says Jon Roessum, a foreign desk reporter with the Norwegian Broadcasting Service in Oslo. He has worked closely with Mr. Milhollin on several in-depth programs regarding Norway’s export of heavy water and has plans for a major documentary to be aired in the fall. “I’m sure the Foreign Ministry wishes he would go away.”

Mr. Milhollin is at no loss for criticism of his own country, which he scolds for turning a blind eye toward the development of nuclear weapons in some countries while being openly critical of others.

“The difficulty has been that we’ve just continued to put this issue off and not be serious about it because of a desire to achieve some short-term objective,” he says, adding that the United States has lessened its criticism of Pakistani attempts to build a nuclear arsenal, since Pakistan began providing support for refugees during the war in Afghanistan.

“But long after Afghanistan is over and forgotten, Pakistan’s nuclear capability is going to be a problem for everyone in the world, including us,” he says. “Once we get nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East and South Asia, then we are going to be in a world that is literally on a hair trigger everywhere.”

In recent months, Mr Milhollin has been pressing Norway to exercise its inspection rights of 20 tons of heavy water sold to Israel in 1959 that hasn’t been inspected in some 25 years. Now, he has his eye set on West Germany, which he accuses of being lax in enforcing safeguards on nuclear materials.

According to Mr. Milhollin, the owner of the West German company involved in the 15 tons of Norwegian heavy water that went missing in 1983 has been suspected of illegally trading nuclear materials since about 1980.

“The struggle to prevent the spread of the bomb is a struggle we can’t afford to lose,” says Mr Milhollin, “but we’re losing it.”