LONDON — Britain secretly sold Israel a key ingredient for its nuclear program in 1958, declassified documents have revealed.
Official government papers released by the British National Archives detail a deal to export 20 tons of heavy water for about $2.7 million. The ingredient was vital to plutonium production at the top-secret Dimona nuclear reactor in Israel’s Negev desert.
The British government did not place any “peaceful use only” condition on the sale of the heavy water. “It would be somewhat overzealous for us to insist on safeguards,” a civil servant explained.
Ministers in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government were unaware of the deal, which apparently was conducted entirely by civil servants. It also was kept secret from the Americans.
In one of the documents, Foreign Office official Donald Cape concluded: “On the whole I would prefer not to mention this to the Americans.”
When questioned by the British Broadcasting Corp., Mr. Cape said he could remember nothing about the episode.
Washington had refused Israeli requests to purchase heavy water without a guarantee that it would be used for exclusively peaceful purposes.
The heavy water was surplus from a consignment that Britain bought from Norway. Though shipped from a British port, it was presented as a deal between Israel and Norway.
Robert McNamara, who served as the U.S. secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968, said he was “astonished” by the cover-up.
“It is very surprising to me we were not told because we shared information about the nuclear bomb very closely with the British,” he told the BBC.
By the time Israel requested more heavy water in 1961, the existence of the Dimona reactor had been exposed by the press, as had Israel’s probable weapons program, and Britain refused a further sale, the documents reveal.
Hugh Stephenson of the Foreign Office wrote: “I am quite sure we should not agree to this sale. The Israeli project is much too live an issue for us to get mixed up in it again.”
Israel has never acknowledged or denied having nuclear weapons, and has not conducted any public nuclear tests. It also has refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Israel began showing an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons shortly after its creation in 1948, and formed the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission in 1952.
Construction of the Dimona facility began in the late 1950s, with France secretly providing assistance with reactor design and construction, according to Washington-based Web site GlobalSecurity.org.
In 1968, the CIA concluded that Israel had begun to produce nuclear weapons, but it wasn’t until 1986 that the international community was afforded a glimpse of the true extent of the Israeli program.
Mordechai Vanunu, who had worked as a technician at Dimona, gave the Times of London detailed information about Israel’s nuclear program, on the basis of which analysts concluded that Israel had up to 200 warheads. However before he could reveal more, he was trapped by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad and imprisoned for 18 years as a traitor.
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