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Victor Gilinsky & Roger Mattson: Revisiting the NUMEC Affair

Originally published in the spring of 2010. 

Dec 30, 2012
AUTHOR: Victor Gilinsky & Roger Mattson
Revisiting the NUMEC (PDF) 1,056.03 KB

Revisiting the NUMEC Affair

It is the story that won't go away-the possibility that in the 1960s Israel stole bomb-grade uranium from a U.S. nuclear fuel-processing plant. Now two former NRC officials explain what they think happened.
By Victor Gilinsky & Roger J. Mattson
In  A 1977 60 Minutes interview, Mike Wallace asked then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin whether he could, or would, shed any light on rumors that in the early 1960s Israel had stolen bomb-grade uranium from the United States. Begin ridiculed the question, but he didn't answer it directly: "From time to time, I read in the press the most fantastic stories-how everywhere Israel snatches away uranium from America and from Europe. It belongs to the' James Bond stories-"
"Not so?" Wallace interjected.
"I don't pay any attention to them," Begin answered.
Wallace let it go, and after a year or two of interest, so did the rest of the media, which is a shame, because when the known facts are put together, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Israel probably did steal highly enriched uranium (REU) from the United States.
The story landed in the press about a year before the Wallace/ Begin interview. It started, improbably, with James Conran, an engineer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) who was angry about being denied access to an intelligence report on Israel's nuclear activities-a report he thought he needed to properly assess safeguards at U.S. commercial nuclear facilities against theft of bomb-capable materials. To address Conran's insistent complaints and to scotch rumors, NRC Chairman William Anders in February 1976 invited CIA Deputy Director Carl Duckett to brief about a dozen senior NRC officials. Instead of dismissing the rumors, Duckett stunned his audience by telling them that the CIA believed Israel had illegally obtained REU from a fuel-processing plant run by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) in Apollo, Pennsylvania, and that Israel used this HEU for its first bombs.' (Both coauthors worked at the NRC at the time and were involved in one or another aspect of the NUMEC affair-one as a commissioner who attended the CIA briefing and the other as the head of a task force charged with developing the NRC's response to Conran.)
Anders immediately passed along Duckett's information to James Connor, a smart, confident assistant to President Gerald Ford who knew his way around nuclear issues because he briefly had been director of planning and analysis at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the precursor to the NRC.2 As Connor recounted it, he told Ford, "Mr. President, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Israel definitely has the Bomb and can take care of itself. The bad news is that the stuff came from Pennsylvania."3 At Connor's urging, the Justice Department began looking into the matter.
Drawing on an earlier FBI case summary, Attorney General Edward Levi informed Ford that the FBI had never conducted "an investigation into the alleged discrepancy in nuclear materials at NUMEC because it was advised by the AEC that any loss likely was attributable to inadequate accounting procedures and that there was no evidence or suspicion of a violation oflaw."4 Levi listed several criminal statutes that might have been violated: Some dealt with unauthorized release of restricted data; two pointed to his suspicions that enriched uranium was unlawfully removed from Apollo; and three others referred to the possibility that federal officials concealed the events after the fact. He concluded: "I believe it necessary to conduct an investigation," which he instructed the FBI to undertake.5
The original investigation. NUMEC started processing HEU at Apollo in the late 1950S, mostly for the AEC. However, by the early 1960s, worrisome signs appeared that the plant's security and accounting were deficient-even by that era's lenient standards. Here is how then AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg described the situation in his 1993 book, The Atomic Energy Commission under Nixon: "The AEC's materials accountability system as of 1960, the year when the discrepancies were first noted at NUMEC ... provided no means of ascertaining how much material a company might ship abroad other than by referring to the company's own records; there was no provision for AEC physical checks of shipments. The system did not require that [special nuclear material such as plutonium or enriched uranium] be physically protected within, or when in transit to and from, private plants. Nor was every private employee who handled [special nuclear material] required to have a security clearance or even to be a U.S. citizen .... In addition, AEC staff did not seem to emphasize vigorous enforcement even of existing requirements."6
AEC officials did complain about NUMEC's performance and began to lose patience with its lack of response. In 1965, after the company could not account for a substantial amount of HEU and dragged its feet about resolving the discrepancy, the AEC conducted its own careful inventory.7 The commission concluded that there was about a 200-kilogram difference between the HEU supplied to the plant and the amount returned in product to customers. After accounting for processing losses, the fate of about 100 kilograms of HEU remained unexplained. Neither NUMEC nor the AEC could figure out where the missing HEU might have gone.
Unexplained losses occurred at other commercial plants, but Apollo’s losses were proportionately larger.8 Equally troublesome were the extensive contacts NUMEC’s president, Zalman Shapiro, an eminent chemist and inventor, had with the Israeli government. Shapiro traveled frequently to Israel; NUMEC was a procurement and sales agent for the Israeli ministry of defense; and the company was involved in a partnership, called ISORAD, with Israel's nuclear organization to develop food irradiators, which involved sending large packages of radioactive sources to Israel.9
All of this left the AEC in an embarrassing fix. The commission had been aware that it was technically possible for foreign recipients to use HEU or plutonium fuel imported from the United States for nuclear weapons, but, incredible as it seems today, the agency had not given any thought to the possibility that individuals or groups could steal nuclear material within the United States.10  Worse yet, public suspicion that bomb material had been stolen from a U.S. facility would undermine support for the AEC's grandiose nuclear projects. The commission's immediate concern, however, was how to deal with the inevitable questions from the powerful Joint Committee on Atomic Energy OCAE)-the AEC's congressional overseer, and real boss.11
At a key February 1966 meeting in preparation for congressional testimony, AEC Assistant General Manager Howard Brown said the basic AEC position "should be" that it had "no evidence or suspicion that diversion had occurred." Seaborg emphasized the desirability of stressing to the JCAE the "theory" presented by Brown that no diversion had taken place. This theory, in Brown's opinion, made it unnecessary to formally involve the FBI-which had jurisdiction over all alleged or suspected criminal violations of the Atomic Energy Act.12
Commissioner James Ramey asked about interviewing NUMEC personnel. Brown did not think much would come of it but agreed to do so. A month later, the AEC sent a team to Apollo to question NUMEC employees. To the dismay of team leaders, AEC attorney Marcus Rowden instructed them not to take any written statements and to cease questioning and return to Washington at the first indication of illegal activity. The investigators asked about 36 NUMEC employees only whether they knew about any diversion.13 None did. Some guards volunteered that a diversion would have been possible, but that information did not seem to gain traction.
While the AEC "investigated" the HEU loss, the FBI restricted itself to briefly examining whether the ISORAD arrangement required Shapiro to register as a foreign agent. The Justice Department concluded that it did not.14 The AEC then talked the FBI out of investigating the possibility of diversion on grounds that the AEC had found no suspected criminal violations, just sloppy accounting.15 In short, the AEC took the position that diversion was so unlikely that there was no need to consider it at all. In retrospect, it looks as though the agency's single-minded interest in nuclear power expansion smothered any security concerns.
1. "Inquiry into the Testimony of the Executive Director for Operations," Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Offices ofGeneral Counsel and Inspector and Auditor, February 1978, NRC document room; strictly speaking, by regulation, the dividing line betveen low-enriched uranium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) is 20-percent enrichment in the uranium 235 isotope. Throughout this article, however, we use HEU to designate uranium of roughly 90-percent enrichment (i.e., material that can be a reactor fuel or a nuclear explosive).
 2. Meanwhile, another NRC commissioner, Marcus Rowden, confided to Gen. Edward Giller, the head of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, that some younger members of the NRC wanted to "to spill the beans." "August 8, 1977 NUMEC-Related Congressional Hearing," Energy Department memorandum, deputy inspector general to undersecretary, April 27, 1979, p. "Summary of May 4, 1978 Interview of General Edward B. Giller, former deputy assistant administrator for National Security, Energy Research and Development Administration," documents attached to each other and located at University of Arizona, Special Collections library, Morris Udall papers, MS 325, Box 365, Folder 1. (Documents cited in this article are housed in repositories including the Glenn T. Seaborg and Benjamin Loeb papers at the library of Congress's Manuscript Division, the University of Arizona's Morris Udall papers cited above. and the James Connor and John Marsh papers at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. In addition, FBI documents were obtained under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) File No. 117-2564 and Freedom of Information, Privacy Act File No. 1091168-000. NRC and Energy Department documents are available from their respective public document rooms.)
 3. Washington knew by that point that Israel had nuclear weapons, but there still was considerable uncertainty about the extent of Israel's program.
 4. FBI document, FBI director to the attorney general, "[subject redacted]," April 22, 1976; Justice Department memorandum, Attorney General Edward Levi to President Gerald Ford, April 22, 1976, Loeb papers.
5. An FBI interview with the interviewee's name redacted, but who obviously was James Connor, reports. "The president is particularly concerned with any indication of a prior cover-up. [Redacted] expressed the feeling that he was appalled at the superficiality of the AEC investigation into the matter." FBI Airtel, special agent in charge. Washington Field Office to FBI director, [subject redacted], June 15, 1976, Loeb papers.
6. Glenn T. Seaborg with Benjamin S. Loeb, The Atomic Energy Commission under Nixon: Adjusting to Troubled Times (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), p. 196.
7. Howard C. Brown Jr., Memorandum for the Files, July 22, 1965, Udall papers; S. T. C. McDowell, assistant director for control. AEC Division of Nuclear Materials Management, "Report of Survey: Control Over Enriched Uranium, Nuclear Materials & Equipment Corp., Apollo, Pennsylvania, Division of Nuclear Materials Management, Nuclear Materials Management Survey Number DNMM-S3." April 6, 1966, Loeb papers.
8. Seaborg wrote that the AEC staff "tended to believe that the losses at NUMEC had indeed been excessive." See The Atomic Energy Commission under Nixon, p. 198. In addition, in a letter to John Conway, the executive director of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), on February 14 1966 (Udall Pilpers), R. L. Hollingsworth, the AEC's general manager, wrote, "NUMEC's cumulative losses from time of plant start-up in 1957 have been higher than those determined by other companies having comparable operations."
9. H. J. Badini, AEC Division of Security, "Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation, Apollo, Pennsylvania," memorandum for files, August 1, 1963: AEC memorandum, G. A. Palazzolo, chief, Research Branch, AEC Headquarters Division of Security to Harry R. Walsh, director of Security and Property Management Division, 1965. All from Loeb papers.
10. Although, as Seaborg wrote, "such dangers did not have the prominent place in the national consciousness that they were later to acquire." See The Atomic Energy Commission under Nixon, P.196
11. The JCAE existed from 1946 to 1977 and had exclusive jurisdiction over all civilian and nuclear matters.
12. Atomic Energy Act of1954, section 221. b., provides that "the FBI of the Department of Justice shall investigate all alleged or suspected criminal violations [of the act]."
13. AEC memorandum, Ellyson Outten [Office of Investigations, Division of Inspection] to Anson Bartlett, Division of Inspection, February 28, 1966, Loeb papers.
14. Justice Department letter, J. Walter Yeagley, assistant attorney general, Internal Security Division, to FBI director, March 23, 1966, Loeb papers.
15. AEC letter, Glenn Seaborg, AEC chairman, to Chet Holifield, joint committee chair, February 14, 1966, Udall papers.
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