Friday, December 20, 2013

Israel's Secret Uranium Buy

How Argentina Fueled Ben-Gurion's Nuclear Program.


In mid-July 1964, the State Department and the CIA sent a joint message asking the U.S. embassies in Argentina and Israel to check out an unverified intelligence report. They wanted to know whether the Argentines had agreed to sell Israel some 80-100 tons of uranium oxide, or "yellowcake," an essential product for fueling a nuclear reactor and thereby producing plutonium that can be used in weapons.

As it turned out, Washington had gotten information about the sale from the British government, which in turn had found out about it from the Canadians. All three governments were concerned about Israel's nuclear weapons ambitions, and the yellowcake transaction was strong evidence that something was amiss. American diplomats in Argentina confirmed the sale, which soon put the State Department in an awkward position: It would have to ask the Israelis about a transaction that flew in the face of their assurances that the country's nuclear program was for peaceful purposes only.
Israel's nuclear program presents a sort of paradox to historians. While it may be the world's worst-kept secret, it is also the world's most opaque nuclear program. One aspect of the Israeli nuclear program that has been especially mysterious is how and where Israel was able to obtain the raw material required to sustain a serious weapons effort. In the 1960s, this was a real challenge for U.S. intelligence, which was not entirely clear about the purposes of the Israeli program or whether Israel would comply with its "peaceful use only" pledge. It remains a challenge for historians today because Israel still does not acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons.
Previously obscure declassified archival documents on the yellowcake sale shed light on the global context of the Israeli nuclear program's early history. Edited and annotated by the two of us, 42 documents are being published today for the first time by the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (in conjunction with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies). They demonstrate how vigorously Israel sought raw materials for its nuclear program and how persistently it tried to cultivate relations with nuclear suppliers. They also tell us how other players -- in particular the United States, Britain, and Canada -- viewed the program.
The story of the Argentine yellowcake sale to Israel has remained largely untold because Israel has gone to great lengths to keep it secret and because the U.S. government and its close allies have kept quiet about what they knew at the time. The United States has always been ambivalent about Israel's nuclear program, and exposing what it knew or suspected about the Israeli nuclear program could have caused the United States serious diplomatic problems with Israel's Arab neighbors and possibly the Soviet Union. This limited what Washington could do to circumscribe Israel's nuclear ambitions. Any kind of serious economic or political pressures, even if only contemplated by some, would have become public. And that could have been explosive domestically and internationally.
The U.S. government had been worried about an Israeli nuclear weapons program since late-1960, when the CIA learned and confirmed that, for nearly two years, Israel had been constructing a major nuclear facility (a reactor plus related infrastructure), with French assistance, near the town of Dimona in the Negev Desert. Initially, in support of Israel's desire to establish a nuclear program with military potential, the French apparently agreed to provide Israel with reactor fuel under loose safeguards. Under Charles De Gaulle, however, French policy changed, and it appears that by 1963, when the reactor was near completion, France imposed major constraints on supplying uranium to Dimona.
The Israelis had been trying to extract uranium from phosphate but that proved too costly; they needed a source that they could use freely, without external safeguards. South Africa was a prospective source. The French themselves recognized that Israel could try to acquire uranium from other countries, such as Argentina or Belgium, and in early 1964 they asked Washington whether the Israelis had "tapped" any such sources.
The Canadian government was interested in the Israeli nuclear program from its very inception. When Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on May 25, 1961, Dimona was at the center of the discussion. As he did with President John Kennedy a few days later, Ben-Gurion pledged that the Dimona project was peaceful. In March 1964, Canadian intelligence analyst Jacob Koop prepared a long secret report on Israel's nuclear program, asserting that Israel had all of the "prerequisites for commencing a modest nuclear weapons development project."
Not long after this report was prepared, Canadian intelligence learned (from a still-unknown source) that the Argentine government had made arrangements to supply 80-100 tons of yellowcake to Israel. By the end of April 1964, the British had seen the Canadian report. According to a British diplomat, "This means that Israel now has virtually unlimited supplies of uranium free of safeguards." Moreover, if the Israelis had reprocessing facilities, they could produce enough plutonium to "fuel a nuclear bomb" 18-20 months from the beginning of 1964.
The British soon shared the Canadian report with U.S. intelligence, overcoming Canadian reluctance to share it with its neighbors to the south (apparently the Canadians were irritated that the United States would not share the results of a recent American visit to Dimona). The CIA was initially skeptical, but in June 1964, the State Department and the CIA decided that the story should be checked out and sent the query -- reproduced below -- to its embassies in both Argentina and Israel. In September, the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires confirmed from local sources that during 1963 Israel had arranged to purchase 80 tons of yellowcake from Argentina.
Evidently, the United States took seriously the information it obtained about the Argentine yellowcake sale. Like its British and Canadian allies, Washington was concerned that an Israeli bomb would threaten stability in the Middle East and complicate American efforts to curb nuclear proliferation worldwide. Moreover, to ensure that the Israelis were abiding by their public pledge that the Dimona facility was for "peaceful" use only, Kennedy and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had secretly agreed in the summer of 1963 to allow American scientists to visit the reactor. The first U.S. team arrived in Dimona in early January 1964, but it is now known that the Israelis made "special arrangements" to prevent the visitors from seeing anything that revealed the true nature of the project.

William Burr is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, and Avner Cohen is professor of nonproliferation studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies and a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The authors would like to thank Ronen Bergman, Matthew Bunn, Marvin Miller, Olli Heinonen, and Sandy Spector for their helpful suggestions.

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