Who Controls the Israeli Bomb?

Arbeider Bladet (Oslo)
January 21, 1987

The results are now as official as they can get: Israel has the bomb. The revelations of an Israeli arms technician, and a string of U.S. intelligence reports, have established the fact beyond much doubt. The technician’s sixty photographs and other evidence show the unmistakable details of an advanced nuclear weapon program. The CIA began reporting nuclear weapons in Israel in 1968, and has consistently reported them since.

But there is a second fact about Israel’s bomb that few people know, yet it is almost as important as the bomb itself. It is that Norway has the right — and also the obligation — to control it.

Israel’s arsenal is based upon plutonium, and Israel’s only source of plutonium is the Dimona reactor, secretly built by France in the Negev Desert during the early 1960s. To achieve a chain reaction, the reactor requires a substance known as “heavy water.” Israel imported twenty tonnes of it from Norway, and four from the United States, before the reactor started up in 1963. Israel was forced to make the imports because the United States and Norway were the only suppliers of heavy water in the world until the mid-1970s.

It is clear that the Norwegian water went into the Dimona reactor. There was no other source for Dimona’s heavy water at the time, and Dimona was the only facility in Israel that used heavy water in quantities greater than a tonne. Israel itself had the ability to make heavy water on a laboratory scale, but nothing approaching the quantities needed for Dimona. Norway’s twenty tonnes supplied almost all of Dimona’s original heavy water inventory, and is the major part of that inventory today.

In 1979, and again recently, Norway’s Foreign Ministry has said specifically that any Israeli plutonium made from Norway’s heavy water is covered by inspection rights and a pledge of peaceful use. These rights were granted to Norway in the original export agreement. This means, inevitably, that Norway has the right to an accounting — to look at what its heavy water has produced. An inspection would no doubt show that the heavy water has been in Dimona, producing Israel’s stockpile of plutonium. It would also show that the plutonium forms the heart of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Norway can ask for an inspection simply by picking up the telephone.

Norway adheres to the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Nuclear Supplier Guidelines. These are the main barriers to the spread of nuclear arms, and are founded upon the guarantee of peaceful use. The accords obviously mean little if countries such as Norway do not enforce them. To preserve the accords, as well as its self respect, Norway must enforce its rights in Israel. If Norway’s heavy water has been used to make bombs, as it now appears, Norway should require them to be dismantled and the accords to be respected.

What is the true purpose of the Israeli bomb? Will Israel, it back to the sea and its existence at stake, be saved by nuclear deterrence? Unfortunately, Israel’s bombs, like those of the United States, cannot be used without involving the Soviet Union. The Soviets would inevitably come to the aid of Syria or another Arab state threatened with nuclear weapons. Soviet support would have little credibility otherwise. This means that the United States would then have to come to Israel’s aid, since Israel could not confront the Soviets alone. This would draw in U.S. allies, including Norway, and place all Europe at risk. Israel’s possession of these weapons also forces the Arab states to get them. It is probably only a matter of time until they do. Everyone’s security is reduced by the situation.

It is both decent and reasonable to ask Israel to keep its promises. What is not decent and reasonable is to pretend that nothing is happening. Israel is, so far as the experts can tell, the first country in the world to break the peaceful use pledge, and Norway is the first victim — the first country to have its peaceful nuclear exports converted into bombs. It is hard to see why Norway should accept such a humiliation, or set such a dangerous precedent.

Gary Milhollin is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.