Did Israel Steal U.S. Weapons-Grade Uranium, and Did it Have Help From U.S. Citizens?
By Dr. Roger Mattson
Smith: And now, I’ve got four seconds left, I would like to welcome
Dr. Roger Mattson, who is going to do our next presentation. Dr.
Roger J. Mattson is the author of the recently published book
Stealing the Bomb: How Denial and Deception Armed Israel.
Dr. Roger Mattson has experience in engineering and management at Sandia National Laboratory, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and several other nuclear safety and security consultancies. He was the adviser to the Nuclear Regulatory commissioners on policy issues such as safety goals, risk assessment, nuclear standards, Three Mile Island. And after leaving government service in 1984, he led two private companies that provided safety and security services for U.S. nuclear power plants, the Energy Department’s nuclear facilities and several foreign users of nuclear power.
Following the Chernobyl incident in 1986, he helped developed IAEA guidance on safety principles for the world’s nuclear power plants. He oversaw nuclear safety consultancies in five countries. He also served on the offsite safety committees for several nuclear power plants and several DOE nuclear facilities. In 2012, he was part of a team formed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to forge a new safety construct for nuclear power after the tragedy at Fukushima. He has participated in safety analysis and field surveys of nearly 150 nuclear facilities in the U.S., Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Far East, including the startup of the latest U.S. nuclear power plant in 2015. Roger.
Dr. Roger Mattson: I’ll just say a couple of things at the start to get us rolling. This is a complex story that I’m going to tell you today. It’s been ongoing for about 60 years, as you will learn, and it’s come into the public light in kind of a random way. We learn a little bit here, we learn a little bit there. So it was hard for me to piece it together over the years. I had assistance from Grant in some of his FOIA requests, and I’ll show you some of those later. There’s some science involved in this story. I’ll try not to go over your head on the science, but the science is important to the story. So if you have questions about that, send a card up and we’ll see if we can answer it at the Q&A session.
I’m going to cover a lot of territory. When I was in China helping them start their first nuclear regulatory authority, I learned a phrase about moving fast through a subject. They call it watching the flowers from horseback, so today we’re going to watch some flowers from horseback, if you get my meaning. There’s some new information in what I’m going to talk about that’s never been talked about publically before. It’s in the book [Stealing the Bomb: How Denial and Deception Armed Israel], and we’ll point it out as we come to it.
I started an interest in this subject—the theft of nuclear materials from the United States to jumpstart the Israeli nuclear weapons program—in 1977, when I was asked to lead a group of NRC—Nuclear Regulatory Commission—security experts to look at the charges by a whistleblower, one of our colleagues at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Over the years, as more information became available, I learned that I hadn’t been told everything the government knew at the time it set me up to conduct that investigation, so I had a certain curiosity in it.
There were a couple of congressional investigations following the whistleblower activity, the most important of which was led by [Sen.] Mo Udall, a Democrat from Arizona. And his records became available in recent years at the University of Arizona Library, which were a vital source to me. We’re going to hear the story about a man named John Hadden, a CIA person who was station chief for CIA in Tel Aviv at the time of this event. His son made his records available to me about two years ago, after his father’s death, and they proved invaluable, as you’ll see from quotations I’ll provide from them.
And then in 2006, the Department of Energy declassified some technical information about the uranium that was stolen, and it helped put the whole story together. So some of this broke very late, compared to when it happened.
Let me say a couple of things about Israel’s nuclear program. The first reactor built in Israel was supplied by the United States under President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. Some of you are probably old enough to remember that. It was an attempt by the Eisenhower administration to stay in the lead over the Soviets in the distribution of nuclear technology in the world, and a small research reactor was built at Nahal Sorek in Israel.
About the same time, because the United States refused to provide a plutonium production reactor, the Israelis made a deal with the French that had its genesis in the Suez Canal crisis and the support that the Israelis provided for the French in that affair. And they obtained on the QT the design and fabrication of a reactor at a place called Dimona in Israel. The French provided not only the reactor and the fuel, but also the reprocessing plant from which plutonium could be extracted for making nuclear weapons. An important part of the Israeli program was an organization called LEKEM, which is a Hebrew acronym for a security organization. I think it was the scientific bureau or something that it stood for.
These people were charged with espionage around the world—mainly centered in the United States—to steal materials, components and information about nuclear weapons production capabilities. They were also the people who befuddled the inspector sent by President Kennedy, and for a time by President Johnson, to look into Dimona to try to confirm the Israeli claims that it was a research reactor, not a weapons production reactor. There’s a Ministry of Defense organization called RAFAEL, another Hebrew acronym that you’ll see show up in the chronology as I go through it. Just to give you a time reference, historians believe today, scholars believe today, that the first Israeli nuclear weapons were available for use at the time of the Six-Day War in 1967—to try to give you a time reference.
The next slide is a quick picture of Dimona. It’s hard to see much on that slide. I’ll just point out that on the right-hand side is the usual reactor containment dome that you’re used to seeing at other nuclear plants. I think in the middle there are cooling towers, forced draft cooling towers. And then the tower on the far left would be for gaseous effluence from the plant. An important thing to remember: these plants all have radioactive effluence.
So the company that was involved in the diversion of materials to Israel was a company called NUMEC, Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation. And the next couple of slides provide a timeline for NUMEC’s operation.
I left something off at the start. In 1955 there was the Geneva Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, where people from developing nations that hadn’t been involved in the Manhattan Project and the bomb production capability of the United States in World War II first came together to talk about, under the Atoms for Peace kind of dialogue, what they wanted to do with nuclear energy. And Israel was a prime attendee at that meeting in the person of Ernst David Bergman, who went on to become the father of the Israeli atomic bomb. He was the chairman at that time of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission.
Bergman turned out to be a close colleague of a man named Zalman Shapiro. Shapiro was an American Jew from the Pittsburgh area who was a world famous nuclear metallurgist. He knew a lot about uranium. He knew a lot about plutonium. He knew a lot about how to clad fuel elements, how to make fuel elements for reactors. And he learned those things in the United States Nuclear Navy program. He designed the first nuclear submarine for the United States, the Nautilus. His neighbor in the Pittsburgh area was a man named David Lowenthal. Lowenthal was a hero, really, of the ’48 war of Independence in Israel. He was on the Exodus, the ship Exodus taking refugees to Israel after World War II. He was a confidant of Ben-Gurion. He organized the funding for the company called NUMEC. Zalman Shapiro became the president of NUMEC. He left the U.S. government employment at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory and started the company NUMEC.
It started processing highly enriched uranium for the U.S. Navy in 1960. By 1964, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory people were learning that there was missing uranium, what they call inventory differences, or material unaccounted for, at the NUMEC facility in Apollo, Pennsylvania. The Oak Ridge people—remember, Oak Ridge is the first uranium enrichment capability in the world, built during World War II. Oak Ridge alerted the Atomic Energy Commission, then under the leadership of Dr. Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Laureate for the discovery of plutonium. The AEC did an independent audit. They used the best people they could find—the best people from Oak Ridge, the best people from the commission, the best people from NUMEC—and they came up with 178 kilograms of missing highly enriched uranium. Of that 178, they found that 94 kilograms could no way be accounted for.
Over the next year or so, NUMEC borrowed $2.2 million to pay for the 178. They had to pay for it all, whether it went up in the air or whether it went someplace that nobody knew about. In 1967, being in dire financial straits, NUMEC sold to Atlantic Richfield Company—an interesting sale that Grant wrote about in an earlier book [Divert! NUMEC, Zalman Shapiro and the Diversion of US Weapons Grade Uranium Into the Israeli Nuclear Weapons Program]. That coincided with Atlantic Richfield Company’s first entry into the nuclear business. It got a $30 million a year contract at the Hanford Works in the State of Washington, sort of coincidentally with its purchase of NUMEC.
Some people can’t visualize this NUMEC facility in Apollo—was it a great big thing or a little bitty thing? Here’s the scale. It’s about two stories tall. It’s about a block-and-a-half long. That’s the factory in the top photo. In the bottom photo is the office building across the street, which figures in the story.
So the inventory difference grew to 287 kilograms. For those of you who think in terms of pounds, that’s about 600 pounds of missing highly enriched uranium. It takes 10 to 20 pounds to make an atom bomb.
Then in 1968—that’s something that’s on the cover of my book and we’ll see here in a minute—is the records of the four senior espionage officials, espionage agents of the government of Israel, who visited NUMEC under false credentials. In 1970 Shapiro left NUMEC, went to work for a company called Kawecki Berylco, which made beryllium components for nuclear weapons, supplied the beryllium which is used in a variety of ways in nuclear weapons.
He applied for a higher security clearance than the one he had. He got involved with the Nixon administration and Attorney General Mitchell. Some of you will remember John Mitchell. And Mitchell said, no, don’t give him a security clearance. It was after the Oppenheimer trial, where Oppenheimer lost his security clearance. Seaborg didn’t want to go through that again. With Shapiro, they fought back and forth between the AEC and the Justice Department. In the end AEC found him a job where he didn’t need a security clearance that paid $10,000 a year—more than what he was making—and he took that job at Westinghouse, where he spent most of the rest of his career.
In 1971 Babcock & Wilcox Company—that’s the people who designed Three Mile Island, by the way—bought NUMEC from Atlantic Richfield Company. They stopped operations in ’78. The plant was decommissioned and returned to a green field by 1992. But it had a waste disposal site a few miles away that is now the subject of a Superfund cleanup by the United States government to the tune of $400 million, organized by the Corps of Engineers, and the costs are being negotiated by the Justice Department. That’s the story of NUMEC.
I will go back to the audit in 1965. Of the 178 kilograms that was missing, 94 kilograms unexplained. The NRC historian has recorded that as six atomic bombs, or maybe a little more. There was no FBI investigation of the theft, the alleged diversion in 1965 or ’66. The AEC under Dr. Seaborg said they didn’t think it had been stolen. They didn’t know where it went for sure, but they didn’t think it had been stolen. If you look at the records of their discussions, the commission discussions with their staff, there’s no discussion whatsoever of Dr. Shapiro’s association with Israel. There was suspicion, but they didn’t talk in any detail about those associations. I’ll give you some of that detail in a minute.
They had various explanations for where the material went. None of it panned out. They dug up things in waste disposal. They counted filters at Oak Ridge Laboratory. They couldn’t find 94 kilograms. That’s 200 pounds of highly enriched uranium.
Later Seaborg wrote a number of books, and he wrote three of them that were memoirs where he discussed NUMEC. In one of them he said, what good would it do to admit that HEU had been stolen and given to Israel? He denied that it happened, but he said what good would it do?
Dr. Shapiro was a Zionist. He was a national officer in the Zionist Organization of America. He was an awardee of the ZOA. He told both the FBI and the AEC when they had hearings with him that he wanted to immigrate to Israel. Finally, in a wiretap, the FBI picked up his admission that the Israelis told him he was more valuable to them here than he was there. You can read down the slide. You can see it on the Web later. He was associated with Bergman, the father of the Israeli bomb, a number of LEKEM agents, and people from Mossad. We’ll talk about Rafael Eitan in a minute. And those are some of his associations.
One of the keys to understanding how this happened was that the CIA, beginning in 1966, ’67, and ’68, thought Israel had the bomb. But they hadn’t confirmed that Dimona was producing plutonium. They charged the CIA Station Chief John Hadden and his people in Tel Aviv to make trips to Dimona and collect samples in the environment. Remember the gaseous effluence. At any nuclear plant you can pick up very small traces of radioactivity. That’s why they’re so closely regulated, to keep those traces very small. So they were looking for plutonium in the environment. John Hadden’s son remembers going out there with his dad on peanut butter sandwich trips where the kids would eat the peanut butter sandwich and the father would collect flora in the vicinity, throw them in the trunk, and head back to Tel Aviv.
We don’t know today who counted those or did the radioactive analysis of those samples, but they found highly enriched uranium before they found plutonium. And there was no highly enriched uranium at Dimona. Israel had no capability to enrich uranium. What we know today is that they were able to put a signature on that highly enriched uranium that proved that it came from the United States, that it came from the naval nuclear program, because the fuel for Navy reactors was 97.7 percent enriched.
A little science: natural uranium, 0.7 percent; uranium in a light-water reactor, a power reactor like we use, 3 percent; uranium in a nuclear weapon, typically 93 percent, depending on the country. But the naval fuel was 97.7, and that’s what Hadden found in the environment near Dimona—the type of fuel processed by NUMEC.
This is what’s on the cover of the book. In 1968 these four Israeli spies showed up at NUMEC—and, just briefly: Avraham Hermoni was the LEKEM chief in the United States. He recruited a number of spies for Israel in the nuclear program. He went back to RAFAEL, where he was the deputy director of that weapon’s effort in Israel. Ephraim Bagon was sort of the technician of Shin Bet, the Israeli FBI. Avraham Bendor went on to be the head of Shin Bet. Rafi Eitan went on to be the head of LEKEM and recruited and ran Jonathan Pollard in the United States.
They visited NUMEC in 1968, and there were various stories they created. In the book you’ll read my assessment that what they were really there for was to enlist Shapiro’s help with the fabrication of fuel for Dimona using uranium they stole from the Western Europeans.
I’m going to skip the next couple of slides. There’s an eyewitness account of the theft that’s discussed in the book that the FBI did not follow up on, and we today don’t know why. Then I’m going to talk about what various people concluded. Grant, please bear with me and I’ll be done.
J. Edgar Hoover said remove his [Shapiro’s] clearance and take away all of his contracts. Four attorneys general touched it—Ramsey Clark, John Mitchell, Edward Levi and Griffin Bell. They said don’t give him any more clearances. They did wiretaps. They said more was needed. And then by 1980 the whole thing ended.
Seaborg said what good did it do to admit. Morris Udall said that if he had to write in an envelope whether it happened or not, having finished his investigation and the penalty for being wrong was death, he would write in his envelope that it happened. Other politicians have been slow to say. [CIA Director] Richard Helms said we did the job and avoided political risk. God knows what Richard Helms meant in his biography. Zbigniew Brzezinski, just last year, when presented with documents that Grant found, said, “Well, something did transpire. It’s explosive. It’s controversial. What do you want me to do? Ask them to give it back?”
Enough from me, there are lots of implications of this business of a policy nature. My conclusion is the material went there. Whether Shapiro was actually present when it happened, it’s hard to prove. They tell me about arson, if you don’t see the match held to the flame, it’s hard to make an arson conviction. I think the Justice Department had the same trouble here.
Finally, I would say that NUMEC’s not alone, that LEKEM and Rafael Eitan—who’s still alive, by the way—recruited Arnon Milchan, the famous Hollywood producer. His most recent movie was “The Revenant.” He did “Gone Girl” and “Birdman.” He’s one of the wealthiest men in the world. He was an Israeli spy causing the smuggling of materials and information to their nuclear program for many years.
And last but not the least, on a deeper understanding level, the Israel lobby impedes frank discussion of Israel on this subject. This book has stuff that people haven’t seen before. I hope they’ll pay attention to it. The Israeli policy of nuclear opacity, denying that they have the bomb when we all know they do, impedes frank discussion of a weapons-free Middle East, which the Obama administration and others have talked about and we ought to get on with. The only solution to this nuclear weapons thing is nuclear disarmament. It’s probably a hundred-year process. We ought to start today. Thank you.
Grant Smith: We’ve encouraged all of our speakers to stay. We’re certainly probably not going to be able to get to all of your questions on NUMEC or Congress and the making of Middle East policy, but please seek them out during breaks, during the book signings, during other opportunities.