WASHINGTON: A U.S.-based research institute will soon publish what it says is “indisputable” evidence that Israel stole weapons-grade uranium for its still-undeclared atomic weapons program from a nuclear reprocessing plant in western Pennsylvania.
The Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep) will release this month a 300-page report detailing the initial findings of a multi-year research project investigating the disappearance of highly enriched uranium from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (Numec) in Apollo, Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 1960s.
Grant Smith, the director of IRmep, told The Daily Star that the report would include a broad range of newly declassified and un-redacted government documents from various agencies – including the Department of Energy, Atomic Energy Commission, FBI and CIA – that prove that nuclear material was diverted from Numec to Israel.
“The story at this point is that there is no one smoking gun; there are many smoking pistols lying all over the place that we’ve painstakingly collected,” Smith told The Daily Star.
When contacted by The Daily Star, Zalman Shapiro, the founder and former president of the Numec, strongly denied that any diversion of materials to Israel had ever taken place at the plant.
“The story is fabricated. Absolutely fabricated,” said Shapiro, who is now 91 years old.
Smith said that among the evidence to be included in the report is a DOE document confirming that uranium samples picked up by the CIA outside Israel’s nuclear installation in Dimona bore the same isotopic signature as material produced by the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in the U.S. state of Ohio. The Portsmouth plant was a supplier for Numec.
Victor Gillinsky, who was a commissioner for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1975 to 1984, said that evidence of a link between samples found at Dimona and nuclear material produced at Portsmouth, if reliable, would be “very significant.”
“The [Portsmouth] plant was producing very highly enriched uranium, more highly enriched than the usual stuff produced anywhere in the U.S. or other countries because they were turning it out for Navy fuel. So if you found material of that high enrichment, I believe Portsmouth was the only place in the world that would be making it,” Gillinsky told The Daily Star.
The former NRC official cautioned, however, that such evidence should still be viewed with skepticism, since any samples picked up by CIA agents at the Dimona facility would have been extremely small.
“The question is, did they really pick up things that they could clearly identify as coming from Portsmouth?” said Gillinsky.
“If [IRmep] do have something that does nail it down that would be very significant,” said Gillinsky. “But I would look at [the evidence in the IRmep report] very carefully before concluding that it is nailed down.”
The DOE reported in 2001 that 269 kilograms of highly enriched uranium went missing from the Numec plant during the course of its operations under Shapiro’s management from 1957 to 1968.
Suspicion has long swirled around the possibility that the missing uranium was diverted to Israel. Both the FBI and CIA conducted years-long investigations into the missing uranium, but no charges were ever filed.
Previously declassified documents revealed that some of Israel’s most elite spies visited the Numec facility in 1968.
A request submitted to the AEC to gain approval for the visit identified the Israelis as Rafael Eitan, Avraham Ben-Dor, Ephraim Biegun and Avraham Hermoni.
A former director of operations for Mossad, Eitan headed in 1960 the mission that led to the capture of ex-Nazi official Adolf Eichmann in Argentina.
Eitan later served as director of Israel’s Bureau of Scientific Relations (known by its Hebrew acronym Lekem), an intelligence entity that specialized in acquiring scientific and military secrets from abroad through covert means.
As the head of Lekem, Eitan directly oversaw the activities of Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who was in 1987 convicted and sentenced to life in prison on charges of spying for Israel.
Ben-Dor was Eitan’s right-hand man in the operation to capture Eichmann, and also served as a long-time Shin Bet agent before being forced to retire in 1986 for covering up the deaths of two Palestinian prisoners.
Biegun was the head of Mossad’s Technical Department, specializing in electronics and communication.
Hermoni was the technical director of the nuclear bomb project at RAFAEL, Israel’s armament development authority.
Smith said the question of whether highly enriched uranium was diverted from Numec to Israel is all the more relevant now in view of current U.S. efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
“Why are we looking at nuclear weapons? Probably the biggest question that’s being asked in this town [Washington] right now is whether to get even more heavily involved in trying to suppress Iran’s nuclear program. And we think it’s extremely valuable to get the truth out about U.S. collaboration, intentional or not, in Israel’s program,” Smith said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently carrying out a $170 million cleanup of the decommissioned nuclear site in Apollo that is scheduled to be completed in 2015.