Despite doubts, Shapiro maintains innocence
Editor’s note: This is the second of three parts regarding the history of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. and allegations of uranium missing from the company.
Seventeen days after four Israelis – all with ties to that country’s military or intelligence agencies – visited NUMEC, the men also met with NUMEC’s president Zalman Shapiro and four others.
Their discussions, according to Bruce Rice, NUMEC’s security manager, “concerned the possibility of developing plutonium-fueled, thermo-electric generator systems in the 5- and 50-milliwatt power level.”
The Israelis were particularly interested in 10 generators in the 5-milliwatt range, which would be fueled by about 2 grams of plutonium.
“We are proceeding to make a proposal to these gentlemen for this work using, of course, only unclassified information, which is already in the public domain,” Rice wrote to Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) security director Harry Walsh.
During a meeting with then-U.S. Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., Shapiro said he didn’t recall Avraham Hermoni, one of the four Israelis, visiting Apollo, but acknowledged he met on his own with Hermoni “probably less than half a dozen times” to discuss ISORAD and because Hermoni “was interested in technical assistance from time to time.”
It wasn’t the only visit Shapiro told Congressional investigators he didn’t remember. Shapiro said he did not remember a visit to NUMEC by Ephraim Lahav, scientific counselor to the Israeli embassy.
“There were people who visited us, but I don’t recall Lahav,” he said. “It was not unusual for the scientific counselor to come to NUMEC.”
Later, when questioned about a June 1969 meeting with an Israeli scientific counselor at the Pittsburgh airport, Shapiro said, “I think his name was Ephraim Lahav.”
They met, Shapiro told congressional investigators, to discuss a delinquent payment owed to NUMEC for some equipment provided to Israel.
However, the man Shapiro met was not Lahav, but another Israeli scientific attache, Jeruham Kafkafi.
The late Carl Duckett, former CIA deputy director, found it “hard to reconcile (Shapiro) not recalling Lahav when the matter was first raised, but subsequently thinking he was the man he met in Pittsburgh,” Duckett wrote in a letter to Henry Myers, former Udall aide, in response to Shapiro’s unsworn testimony during an informal meeting with Udall’s subcommittee in 1978.
Shapiro also said he met the head of Israel’s military intelligence during his trips there. But, Shapiro said, he had no knowledge of Israel’s nuclear weapons capabilities.
“My discussions with the military intelligence people pertained to a long-lived battery to be used in intrusion detection,” he said, according to documents in the University of Arizona library.
Again, Duckett doubted Shapiro.
Given Shapiro’s background, his interest in Israel and “his contacts with senior Israeli officials concerned with nuclear matters, … it is difficult to comprehend a situation where the possibilities of an Israeli nuclear weapons program would not have crossed his mind,” Duckett wrote.
In an interview with the Valley News Dispatch, Shapiro, 82, of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood declined to discuss any of the controversy surrounding NUMEC.
After about a decade of investigations, federal authorities could not find significant evidence that Shapiro diverted uranium to the Israelis.
But that didn’t end speculation.
Even authors who wrote about the NUMEC affair could not agree on whether uranium was illegally smuggled to Israel.
While the authors Andrew and Leslie Cockburn wrote about the possibility of NUMEC diverting uranium to Israel in their book “Dangerous Liaison,” Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Seymour Hersh refuted that assertion in his 1991 book, “The Samson Option.”
Hersh wrote the government’s evidence against Shapiro “seemed to be his Jewishness and the fact that one of the major investors in NUMEC (David Lowenthal) shared his support for Israel.”
Hersh insisted Shapiro never diverted nuclear material to Israel.
“The nuclear material was not stolen at all – it ended up in the air and water of the city of Apollo as well as in the ducts, tubes and floors of the NUMEC plant,” Hersh wrote.
To bolster his argument, Hersh points to the large quantities of uranium found, according to the NRC, when the Apollo plant was decommissioned and taken apart in the 1980s.
“More than 100 kilograms of enriched uranium – the amount allegedly diverted to Israel by Zalman Shapiro – was recovered from the decommissioned plant in 1982, with still more being recovered each year,” Hersh wrote.
In an interview with the Valley News Dispatch, former Udall aide Myers, who is not represented in a positive light in Hersh’s book, questioned the validity of Hersh’s claims and wondered why more people did not criticize the book.
Federal agents also considered the possibility that NUMEC’s partnership with Israel on food irradiation made it easier to smuggle uranium out of the country. A NUMEC employee put forth this possibility when he was interviewed by FBI agents.
The worker, whose name is deleted in a November 1968 FBI document, told agents he believed the losses in uranium occurred about the same time NUMEC was involved in developing and manufacturing at least one large irradiator and several smaller units called “Howitzers” and shipping them to Israel.
The employee believed if enriched uranium was to be illegally shipped to Israel, “it would have been a simple matter of placing the material in these food irradiator units in large quantities and shipped to Israel with no questions asked,” according to the FBI report.
“Source said these food irradiators were legal shipments and with a notice printed on the side of the container, indicating that the contents contained radioactive material. No one would have opened or examined them or had reason to question their contents.”
There also was speculation by the FBI that Shapiro had in his office “a scrambler telephone” that federal agents could not tap and which he used to talk freely with Israeli agents in New York. FBI agents also suspected that there was a special encoding device on his Teletype machine at NUMEC.
Shapiro insisted to Congressional investigators that such a phone did not exist and that the telex machines at NUMEC were ordinary.
“I know of no such system,” he said in a statement. “I do not know how I am supposed to refute charges of this sort when I am not even told where and when the device was said to be in operation.”
Shapiro insisted the unaccounted-for uranium was not given to Israel but was part of the normal losses during processing. Some of the missing material also was likely buried as waste on the plant site, he said.
“I never diverted any material to anybody,” Shapiro told Udall.
Diversion or sloppy records?
Despite suspicions by the FBI that NUMEC was diverting uranium to the Israelis, the AEC hierarchy backed Shapiro.
In February 1966, AEC Chairman Glenn T. Seaborg wrote to U.S. Rep. Chet Holifield, D-Calif., chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, claiming a diversion of uranium to Israel was unlikely. Instead, he blamed the problem on sloppy record keeping by NUMEC.
Former AEC official Earle Hightower told the Valley News Dispatch there was truth to Seaborg’s statement about NUMEC’s record keeping.
“Everybody recognized it was a very sloppy operation,” Hightower said. “Everybody complained about it, but you couldn’t do anything about it.”
The AEC, Seaborg wrote, conducted surveys of NUMEC’s inventory and was satisfied nothing illegal occurred.
“In the absence of evidence or suspicion of violation of law, we have determined that an inquiry by the FBI is not now warranted,” he wrote.
Seaborg surmised that 61 kilograms of uranium-235 missing from a Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory (WANL) contract may have been used by NUMEC to make up for losses in other jobs the company did.
“It is not now possible to establish a point in time, or even a definable period, when the losses may have occurred or whether, in fact, the WANL material was used knowingly or inadvertently to offset losses on other contracts,” Seaborg wrote.
“Further, because the NUMEC records system was not set up to provide such data, it is not possible to identify all losses with particular contracts. Therefore, it cannot be said unequivocally that theft or diversion has not taken place.”
But Seaborg doubts the diversion theory because of what he believed was a stringent inventory survey done by the AEC and its eight-year history with NUMEC.
“The most probable explanation is that NUMEC consistently underestimated its plant process losses and, that the difference between actual and estimated losses was passed on from completed job to new jobs,” he wrote. “Thus, the losses attributable to the WANL contract probably include an accumulation of deferred losses over an eight-year period.”
Hightower doesn’t buy it.
“We ran a couple of investigations up there,” he said. “The losses were certainly not in the tolerable limits. The losses were way beyond what we would have anticipated. We felt that Shapiro was deliberately negligent to cover the losses.”
The AEC also investigated Shapiro’s claim that the missing uranium was part of buried waste.
News of the buried waste came as a surprise to the AEC, according to an Aug. 2, 1965, memo from AEC Assistant General Manager Howard Brown.
“Dr. Shapiro disclosed for the first time a new source of waste material at the plant which, he averred, would not only make up the dollar difference on the WANL contract, but would result in AEC owing NUMEC,” Brown wrote. “Dr. Shapiro stated this new source of valuable waste was contained in about 800 drums of scraps and cleanup material. buried under four feet of earth on company property.”
Asked why he failed to inform the AEC about this, Shapiro “simply said that the situation was embarrassing,” Brown wrote.
The buried waste was exhumed in October 1965, but only six kilograms of uranium – 56 kilograms short of what Shaprio said should be there – of nuclear material was recovered.
Meanwhile, some in the CIA were convinced Israel had “the bomb” and that NUMEC likely diverted uranium to that country.
“The clear consensus of CIA was indeed that the most likely case was that indeed NUMEC material had been diverted and had been used by the Israelis in fabricating weapons,” said Duckett, the former CIA deputy director, in a 1981 interview on an ABC television program, “Near Armageddon: The Spread of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East.”
A report about the suspicions of diversions from NUMEC to Israel was taken by CIA Director Helms to President Johnson, Duckett said.
“Director Helms told me that President Johnson said, ‘Don’t tell anybody else. Don’t even tell (Secretary of State) Dean Rusk or (Secretary of Defense) Bob McNamara.’ The key impression to me was that, indeed, it was taken seriously by the president and obviously he was very concerned that we protect that information.”
In “The Samson Option,” Hersh discounted Duckett’s theories, but former Udall aide Myers believed Duckett.
“Why would Duckett lieâ¢ Why was he going public on television?” Myers asked. “He was a very conservative bureaucrat. All this did was get him in trouble in life. The thing about Duckett is he had no reason to lie.
It wasn’t that Johnson wanted the matter kept quiet to protect Israel and/or the U.S. government, but that he couldn’t afford a scandal at the time, Myers speculated.
“That’s the last thing LBJ needed,” Myers said. “Here, he was having hell (with Vietnam), so I can see why he told Helms to keep quiet.”