Britain secretly gave Israel plutonium for atom bombs, BBC investigation reveals

Britain secretly supplied Israel with plutonium during Harold Wilson’s government, despite a warning from British intelligence that the material could help Israel get the atom bomb.

That is the conclusion of a Newsnight investigation to be broadcast tonight on BBC TWO at 10.30pm, using material obtained under the Freedom of Information act.

And top secret documents, obtained by Newsnight under freedom of information also show how Britain made hundreds of shipments to Israel of restricted materials which could have helped their nuclear weapons programme.

The Wilson Government also sold them Lithium compounds which would have enabled Israel to make weapons ten times as powerful as the bomb that devastated Hiroshima.

Tony Benn and Harold Wilson

Yet Tony Benn who was Minister of Technology, and in charge of exporting nuclear material, has told Newsnight that government officials and civil servants in his own department kept all these deals totally secret from him, and from his predecessor Frank Cousins. Benn says he always suspected civil servants were doing deals behind his back but he never thought they would sell plutonium to Israel. He tells Newsnight: “I’m not only surprised I’m shocked.” He later adds: “It never occurred to me they would authorise something so totally against the policy of the Government.”

Benn thinks the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, may not even have known that the UK was helping Israel get the Bomb.

In 1966 Israel asked Britain to supply 10mg of Plutonium. Although this was a small amount , and Israel would have required almost 5 kilos of plutonium to build an atom bomb, British officials were warned this had “significant military value” and could enable Israel to carry out vital experimental work to speed up the the development of nuclear weapons.

Documents obtained by Newsnight show the decision to sell plutonium to Israel in 1966 was blocked by officials in both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office who said “It is HMG’s [Her Majesty’s Government] policy not to do anything which would assist Israel in the production of nuclear weapons”. But it was forced through by a civil servant in Tony Benn’s Ministry of Technology, Michael Michaels, whose full name was Michael Israel Michaels.

Peter Kelly, who was British intelligence’s top expert on the Israeli nuclear weapons programme knew Michaels. He told Newsnight he believed Michaels knew Israel was trying to build the Bomb but had dual loyalties - to both Britain and Israel.

On seeing the evidence gathered by Newsnight Tony Benn says “Michaels lied to me, I learned by bitter experience that the nuclear industry lied to me again and again”.

Last year Newsnight revealed how in the late 1950s the Harold MacMillan government had provided Israel with 20 tonnes of heavy water which they needed to start up their Dimona reactor. The Foreign Office responded to the programme by telling the International Atomic Energy Agency that the UK had only sold the heavy water to Norway but papers obtained by Newsnight show Britain shipped it directly to Israel.

Newsnight has now learnt that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has admitted to Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell that Britain did know the heavy water was going to Israel and that in 1961 Harold Macmillan even made a failed attempt to get it back.

Statement from the Foreign Office In response to Newsnight’s report on the sale of UK plutonium to Israel while Harold Wilson was prime minister (9 March 2006)

“We reject any suggestion that Dr Howells has misled the IAEA, or Sir Menzies Campbell when he wrote to him last year.

We are not aware of any request from the IAEA for information regarding any supplies of plutonium, uranium or lithium. We will of course respond to any request the IAEA makes in this regard.

The papers clearly show that in 1958 the UK government agreed a transfer back to Norway control of 25 tons of heavy water, 11.5 tons of which was in the UK at the time.

While the UK government was aware that Norway planned to sell the heavy water to the Israeli Atomic Energy Organisation, the UK was not a party to the sale.

In 1961, due to increasing concern about its end use, the UK government pressed the Norwegian government to request Israel to return the 1958 consignment of heavy water. In addition, the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, personally made this point to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ben Gurion.

Throughout the period in question, all export licensing of materials associated with civil nuclear programmes went through stringent checks across Whitehall. This is still HMG’s policy.”

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