To the Editors:

Amos Elon’s review of Avner Cohen’s Israel and the Bomb [NYR, January 15] gives the author deserved credit for writing a fascinating book that reconstructs for the first time the secret story of the Israeli nuclear bomb project, one “whose existence the Americans were slow to confirm.” There is much to learn from this account for our current efforts to cope with clandestine nuclear weapons developments abroad. In the Israeli case American officials started by wishing away the obvious and progressed to hiding deep inside the government what they knew was politically explosive.

Which brings me to three curious omissions in Cohen’s book—the 1968 smuggling past Euratom inspectors of two hundred tons of uranium ore to Israel, the CIA’s conclusion at about the same time that Israel previously stole bomb-grade uranium from a US naval fuel plant, and the 1979 Vela satellite signal that was widely interpreted as an indication of an Israeli nuclear test. The book’s complete silence on these important events is especially odd as they have been discussed extensively elsewhere.1

The Plumbat Affair

After the 1967 Israeli–Arab war France ceased to supply Israel with uranium. The following year, through complex covert operations involving European front companies and mid-sea transfers from one vessel to another, Israel managed to obtain two hundred tons of uranium ore that had been stockpiled in Antwerp. The sealed drums were labeled “plumbat,” or lead.2 This was not the first, or last, secret Israeli uranium purchase. The significance of the Plumbat affair, however, and therefore the sensitivity, arose from the violation of European Atomic Energy Commission (Euratom) controls. Euratom approved the sale on the understanding that it was an intra-European one. Euratom soon caught on to what happened and informed the US Atomic Energy Commission. Both then sat on the story for another decade. Cohen doesn’t say a word about it.

The NUMEC Affair

As Cohen relates in his book, in 1968 CIA Director Helms reported to President Johnson the exceedingly tightly held conclusion that Israel already possessed nuclear weapons. Among other indications, the United States had observed Israeli Air Force practice runs that could only be for nuclear delivery. This was a political shock that, if revealed, could have derailed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, then nearly ready for signing. A public revelation would have shown that previous US “visits” to Israeli nuclear facilities—to make sure they were not supporting bomb work—were a farce, and that US assurances on this point to Arab countries were false. Johnson is reported to have told Helms not to tell anyone, not even Dean Rusk or Robert McNamara.

But there is more. Cohen’s reference for the 1968 CIA conclusion about Israeli bombs is 1976 “testimony” of CIA Deputy Director Carl Duckett before the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.3 The reason Duckett briefed a small group of commissioners (of whom I was one) and several senior NRC staff was not to tell us Israel had the bomb. It was rather to deal with rumors about a deeper secret in the CIA reports, one that had an even bigger potential for political disaster, and one that I believe was the real reason for the hyper-secrecy. What Duckett confirmed, to everyone’s astonishment, was that the CIA believed that the nuclear explosives in Israel’s first several bombs, about one hundred kilograms of bomb-grade uranium in all, came from material that was missing at a US naval nuclear fuel plant operated by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), in Apollo, Pennsylvania.4 NUMEC had exceptionally close and suspicious ties to Israel. The firm’s sloppy material accounting could have masked the removal of the bomb-grade uranium. After numerous investigations and reinvestigations the facts remain unclear. Still, it seems more than strange that Cohen does not even mention the controversy.

1979 Vela Satellite Nuclear Test Signal

On September 22, 1979, a US Vela satellite designed to detect nuclear tests registered a signal over the Indian Ocean that was generally believed in the US intelligence community to indicate an Israeli nuclear test carried out with South African cooperation.5 But this conclusion was politically awkward for the Carter administration then trying to mediate Mideast peace. The President’s science adviser brought together a group of prominent nongovernmental scientists for a narrow review of the event. The panel came up with the inventive interpretation that the light signal detected by the satellite came not from the ocean surface far away but rather from reflections from tiny particles that happened to pass in front of the satellite detector in exactly the right way to imitate a bomb signal. The White House panel discounted data from ionospheric disturbances recorded by a radio telescope in Puerto Rico that was consistent with the bomb interpretation of the satellite data. Just about everyone else in the federal scientific community believed the signal did come from a bomb test. The Vela satellite experts at the Los Alamos laboratory are still convinced their satellite recorded a nuclear test.6 The technical significance of such a test was that it would have indicated Israel was developing hydrogen weapons (for which testing is essential) and thus its weapons program was then already highly advanced. The international political significance of Israeli nuclear weapons cooperation with South Africa is obvious. Cohen is completely silent about the 1979 event. The timing is indeed past the main account of his book, but given a test’s tremendous significance I am surprised he did not even mention it in the Epilogue.
I realize that Avner Cohen bravely took on a lot in telling the Israeli bomb story—Amos Elon’s review tells of Cohen’s grilling by Israeli security. Still, I can’t help feeling that there is a deeper layer of the story yet to be told. And there is still a lesson to be learned by the United States about facing politically inconvenient facts concerning clandestine nuclear weapons efforts abroad.

Victor Gilinsky

The author, an independent energy consultant, was formerly a member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He was previously the head of the Physical Sciences Department at the Rand Corporation.

This Issue

May 13, 2004