Reports of missing uranium dogged NUMEC owner Zalman Shapiro for life
It reads like a Tom Clancy novel: secret reports among top government advisers, an undercover spy trip to a remote desert half way around the world, and loose talk at a Washington, D.C., embassy party.
But it all, some believe, led back to a relatively small uranium processing facility on the banks of the Kiski River in Apollo.
And, still, more than 50 years later, the whole matter remains largely secret, classified by both the American and Israeli governments.
What's known is that American intelligence officials, beginning in the 1960s and continuing to this day, suspect Israel stole highly enriched uranium from the United States to start its clandestine nuclear weapons program — a program whose very existence Israel denies.
And the source of that uranium was the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) in Apollo, run by visionary Jewish-American scientist and Israel supporter Zalman Shapiro of Pittsburgh.
The allegations — never proven — that Shapiro diverted 200 pounds of highly enriched uranium from his company to Israel dogged him to his death last year despite growing evidence the “lost” uranium never left the Kiski Valley.
Stuff of spy novels
The theft theory may have started during an embassy cocktail party in Washington, D.C., sometime in the 1960s. It was at the party that a U.S. general allegedly overheard an Israeli air force general talk about securing materials from Apollo and somehow linking it to Israel's nuclear weapon program.
“That's where (the CIA) got the idea, you know, that it happened and Zalman (Shapiro) was a serious suspect. He owned the company,” Peter Stockton, an investigator later assigned to look into the diversion theory on behalf of a congressional panel, told the Tribune-Review.
The CIA briefed Stockton during one of several congressional investigations on the Shapiro allegations and a possible government cover-up in the 1970s.
Coincidentally or not, NUMEC came up about 200 pounds short in a 1965 inventory of enriched uranium, fueling the suspicions of a diversion, especially years after the inventory shortfall.
But, when it came time for CIA officials to brief others, including Sen. John Glenn, they said they couldn't verify the cocktail party information.
Theodore Shackley, then CIA associate deputy director for operations, told Glenn at an Aug. 5, 1977, briefing, “the CIA could not really comment on this question, because we had no firm way of correlating this event to anything that was in our files.”
According to Stockton, the CIA also built its case against Shapiro and NUMEC on information from Edward Teller, another Jewish-American scientist, who invented the hydrogen bomb.
Teller, said Stockton, was a consultant to the CIA and told the agency that there was enriched uranium in Israel and asked the spy agency if they knew how it got there.
The exact information Teller gave the CIA about uranium in Israel never has been made public. But his cooperation with the CIA seemed likely to Istvan Hargittai, professor emeritus of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics and author of the book “Judging Edward Teller.”
“I am sure Edward Teller would have considered it his patriotic duty to assist the CIA in matters the CIA would turn to him for assistance,” said Hargittai via correspondence to the Tribune-Review.
And, then, there was the picnic in the desert.
In 1965, John Hadden, then CIA station chief in Tel Aviv, Israel, packed up his family for what his son described as a “bizarre picnic” in the Negev Desert near Israel's nuclear power plant at Dimona.
“There was this dome reactor in the distance, and my father hands out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in wax paper like he was shuffling a hand of poker,” said John Lloyd Hadden Jr. of Vermont, author of the book “Conversations with a Masked Man: My Father, the CIA and Me.”
Then the elder Hadden opened the trunk of his Ford Falcon to retrieve gardening shears.
“He had no interest in gardening,” said Hadden Jr., who watched with amazement as his father clipped bits of nearby shrubs.
Then, abruptly, Hadden Sr. told his family, “That's it,” and they left.
After taking an hours-long road trip, Hadden Jr. observed, “It seemed like a long way to go for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
What was really going on? Hadden Sr. was undercover, collecting vegetation samples around the Dimona nuclear power plant, where the CIA suspected Israel was developing its atomic weapons.
Hadden Sr. used his picnic results, which he said contained traces of enriched uranium that only could have come from the United States, and other information to “amass a portfolio” of evidence and logic that Israel was using nuclear materials from the United States for its nuclear arsenal, according to his son.
But the U.S. government never has admitted to such a finding.
One of the few government documents referencing enriched uranium from the United States found in Israel was a diary entry from Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Prize winner and a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, which controlled the use of atomic energy for commercial and military use in the 1960s.
Seaborg wrote that two government investigators, sent to interview him on June 21, 1978, told him enriched uranium, identified as coming from one of NUMEC's suppliers, was found in Israel.
“… Such enriched material has been sold on an official basis to Israel, and this could be the source of the clandestine sample,” wrote Seaborg, who devoted an entire chapter to Shapiro's innocence in his book “Adventures in the Atomic Age.”
Not the only doubter
“What you got are a couple of guys from the CIA and FBI who knew very little about the subject, very little about it,” said Oscar Gray, a former NUMEC vice president and retired law professor from the University of Maryland.
“They got excited because it looked like there was a big mystery here, and Shapiro was a big supporter of Israel,” he said.
The CIA allegedly looked to NUMEC before when the agency investigated suspicions that U.S. nuclear material made its way to China, but their analysis was later discounted, Gray said.
“(NUMEC) had been asked to do some work with the AEC to produce some material — a special blend, rather highly classified stuff,” he said.
After China tested its first nuclear bomb in 1964, the CIA allegedly picked up atmospheric traces and they determined the material looked similar to the AEC/NUMEC material, Gray said. The finding drew a lot of attention, he said, until they did more tests and found NUMEC was no longer a suspect.
However, the CIA never retracted its suspicions that NUMEC nuclear material went to Israel, and stories citing anonymous sources alleging NUMEC was the source of Israel's uranium circulated in the national media for decades.
According to declassified documents obtained by the Tribune-Review, some inside the U.S. government doubted the theft story and, even if they did believe Israel got its uranium from America, they thought the CIA could be the culprit.
In February 1976, Peter L. Strauss, then general counsel for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, questioned the reliability of information presented to the agency in a CIA briefing.
Strauss noted that the CIA briefing occurred “at approximately the same time that several magazine and newspaper articles appeared on the subject of an Israeli nuclear bomb, articles which appeared to him to have been the result of deliberate leaks,” documents state.
The CIA oral briefing at the NRC in 1976 also was questionable to others.
“The whole thing was so James Bondish,” former NRC Commissioner Edward Mason said in an interview for an NRC investigation on the NUMEC allegations.
“(The CIA has) woven such a loose web. I thought at the time that it was, perhaps, a good idea that this information was not public, because Zalman Shapiro might have a right to sue for slander.”
A Government Accounting Office investigation on NUMEC, classified for years at the urging of the FBI and CIA, examined whether the CIA or another government agency was involved in providing nuclear material to Israel but found no proof of that.
The closest anyone got to confirming CIA culpability, at least publicly, in Israel's nuclear program was journalist Tad Szulc.
Under oath during government hearings about allegations that the CIA opened the mail of Vietnam War protesters and other invasions of privacy by the agency, Szulc said a top CIA official admitted to helping Israel with its nuclear program.
According to Szulc, James Angleton, the CIA's father of counterintelligence who headed the agency's Israel desk, confirmed that the CIA provided expertise on nuclear weapons to Israel in the late 1950s.
Angleton did discuss CIA operations in the Middle East with the committee, but that testimony remains classified.
Still, that narrative fits with what some experts say were the CIA's methods at the time.
Scholar Luke Peterson of the University of Pittsburgh said: “The CIA did things in a clandestine way during the Cold War. The idea that the U.S. was selling (nuclear) material in the 1960s and 1970s is very possible in a CIA context without the White House knowing.”
The legends of NUMEC and CIA involvement, or lack thereof, have continued for decades because many of the agency's records remain classified.
“CIA has nothing to add to the public record on this matter,” wrote Jonathan Liu, a CIA spokesman, in response to Tribune-Review requests for comment.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or [email protected]