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Secret sale of UK plutonium to Israel

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The UK supplied Israel with quantities of plutonium while Harold Wilson was prime minister, BBC Newsnight can reveal.

The sale was made despite a warning from British intelligence that it might “make a material contribution to an Israeli weapons programme”.

Under Wilson, Britain also sold Israel tons of chemicals used to make boosted atom bombs 20 times more powerful than Hiroshima or even Hydrogen Bombs.

In Harold Macmillan’s time the UK supplied uranium 235 and the heavy water which allowed Israel to start up its nuclear weapons production plant at Dimona – heavy water which British intelligence estimated would allow Israel to make “six nuclear weapons a year”.

Last August on BBC Newsnight we revealed the first British/Israeli deal, the sale of the heavy water, but the government responded by telling the International Atomic Energy Agency the UK was not a party to any sale to Israel and that all it did was sell some heavy water back to Norway.
Tony Benn became Minister of Technology in 1966 while the plutonium deal was going through. The nuclear industry was part of his “white heat of technology” brief but no one told him that we were exporting atomic energy materials to Israel.

“I’m not only surprised, I’m shocked,” he says, adding that neither he nor his predecessor Frank Cousins, who was a member of CND, agreed to the sales.

Benn says he always suspected civil servants were doing deals behind his back but he never thought they would sell plutonium to Israel. “It never occurred to me they would authorise something so totally against the policy of the government.”

Dimona

Back in August 1960 covertly taken photos of a mysterious site at Dimona in Israel arrived at Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) in Whitehall. A brilliant analyst called Peter Kelly immediately realized they showed a secret nuclear reactor and he alerted the rest of British intelligence.

Kelly recognized it was a French reactor and soon discovered where the heavy water to run it had come from.

Selling plutonium to Israel was against UK government policy
Britain had bought heavy water from Norsk Hydro in Norway for its nuclear weapons programme but found it was surplus to requirements and needed a buyer. The papers obtained by Newsnight show that a company called Noratom acted as a consultant and arranged the deals in return for a 2% commission.

Britain knew all along that Israel wanted the heavy water “to produce plutonium” and Israel paid the full military price – £1 million – to avoid safeguards to stop the plutonium being used to make nuclear weapons.

Kelly discovered a charade was played out with the UK and Israeli delegations sitting in adjacent rooms while Noratom ferried separate contracts to and fro so Britain could say they hadn’t signed a deal with Israel.

Cover story

Once the press heard about Dimona in December 1960 there was an international outcry. Israel put out a cover story that it was a small research reactor. This did not fool Kelly. Using the figure of 20 tons of heavy water he estimated that Israel could build a reactor capable of producing “significant quantities of plutonium”.

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