Joe Hendren

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Friday, August 05, 2005

Random Historical Interlude #3: UK helped Israel develop nuclear weapons

In September 1958 the UK agreed to supply heavy water without safeguards against military use, enabling Israel to produce nuclear weapons. This revelation follows an investigation by BBC newsnight reporters of documents in the British National Archives. Other files on the matter remain classified.

The 20 tonnes of heavy water were part of a consignment which Britain bought from Norway in 1956, but the UK later decided this was surplus to requirements. While UK officials attempted to make it look like sale from Norway to Israel, the heavy water was loaded onto Israeli ships docked in a British port, half in June 1959 and half a year later (for some reason 5 tonnes was left outstanding).

These officials also attempted to conceal the deal from the US, according to the files, and may not have consulted their own ministers before approving the sale. It appears civil servants in the Foreign Office and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) approved the sale, without safeguards to prevent the heavy water from being put to military use, with one official scrawling that "It would be somewhat over-zealous for us to insist on safeguards".

The heavy water was a vital ingredient for the production of plutonium at Dimona, a secretly build underground reactor in the Negev desert of southern Israel (near Beersheba), built with French assistance. Frank Barnaby, who worked on the British bomb project in the 1950s says he had "no idea" about the sale, "heavy water was crucial for Israel...Therefore it was a significant part of their nuclear programme".

Like any country with a secret nuclear weapons programme, Israel lied about the true purpose of Dimona, and claimed it was a "manganese plant", yet the security measures employed suggest Dimona was far more important (a Libyan civilian airliner and a Israeli fighter were shot down for getting too close).

The released documents suggest money was the primary motivation for the sale. At the time the consignment of heavy water was worth £1.5m, or £20m in today's money.

In 1960 the UK Daily Express exposed the Israelis' work at Dimona, and highlighted the fact Israel was probably making a bomb. The following March, the UKAEA told the Norwegians they thought it was unlikely Israel could have the outstanding five tons, although the deal was commercially "attractive". This was, wrote Peirson, because of "the political sensitivity of Israel's nuclear activities".

Israel is thought to have exploded its first nuclear devices in the mid-1960s, possessing several dozen deliverable atomic bombs by the time of the 1973 war (when Israel went on full nuclear alert).

While the Guardian reports that the Eisenhower administration was "hostile to proliferation" and President Kennedy and his defence secretary Robert McNamara "strived" to stop Israel acquiring nuclear weapons, John Steinbach says the United States also helped Israel develop the bomb (Chomsky says the same thing).

Although the French and South Africans were primarily responsible for the Israeli nuclear program, the U.S. shares and deserves a large part of the blame. Mark Gaffney wrote (the Israeli nuclear program) "was possible only because of calculated deception on the part of Israel, and willing complicity on the part of the U.S.." From the very beginning, the U.S. was heavily involved in the Israeli nuclear program, providing nuclear related technology such as a small research reactor in 1955 under the "Atoms for Peace Program." Israeli scientists were largely trained at U.S. universities and were generally welcomed at the nuclear weapons labs. In the early 1960s, the controls for the Dimona reactor were obtained clandestinely from a company called Tracer Lab, the main supplier of U.S. military reactor control panels, purchased through a Belgian subsidiary, apparently with the acquiescence of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the CIA. In 1971, the Nixon administration approved the sale of hundreds of krytons(a type of high speed switch necessary to the development of sophisticated nuclear bombs) to Israel.

Israel has over 200 nukes, and people wonder why Iraq, and now Iran want weapons of mass destruction? In 2003 George Bush and Tony Blair attempted to use Security Council resolution 687 as a justification for the invasion of Iraq. While 687 provided no such authorisation, it did call for the elimination of Iraqi WMD and delivery systems as a step towards "the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all other missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons." (Article 14). So if 687 is really to be upheld, then pressure must be put on Israel to disarm.

BBC - How Britain helped Israel get the bomb
Guardian - US kept in the dark as secret nuclear deal was struck
Guardian - How the UK gave Israel the bomb

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At 6:41 am, Blogger Rich said...

Interesting, although the UK, and I think the US used graphite moderated reactors (which don't need heavy water) to produce their initial plutonium supplies.

At 8:16 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The significance of heavy water is that a reactor using it produces plutonium directly from natural uranium. Whereas other types of reactor require complex separation plants and huge amounts of energy, the plutonium from a heavy water reactor can be separated from the other materials by simple chemical means. I understand that the official who authorised the sale of the heavy water to Israel was Jewish.


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