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180. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, December 20, 19601

SUBJECT

  • Israeli Atomic Energy Program

PARTICIPANTS

  • Ambassador Avraham Harman of Israel
  • Mr. Mordechai Gazit, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • The Secretary of State
  • Mr. Jones, NEA
  • Mr. Farley, S/AE

(At midday Ambassador Harman telephoned Assistant Secretary Jones to say that he was receiving his instructions and hoped that he would be able to call on the Secretary later in the day without publicity.)

Ambassador Harman recalled his meeting with the Secretary on December 9 and said that he had reported fully the information and questions presented by the Secretary. He had been awaiting the Secretary’s return from Europe2 to convey the requested information and had asked for an appointment promptly on hearing of the Secretary’s return.

He continued that he was instructed to state that Israel is building an additional research reactor of 24 megawatts capacity in the Negev. A reactor of this size is not of industrial importance. The purposes are the development of scientific knowledge for eventual industrial, agricultural, medical and other scientific purposes. The project is part of the general program of development of the Negev. Like similar research reactors in other countries, this is a step toward enabling Israel in the future to build its own power reactors. This reactor was begun one year ago and will take three to four years to complete. Wherever possible local materials are being used but much of the material comes from other countries including France. Israel has taken commitments to supplier countries not to detail the specific sources of supply because of their fears of Arab boycott. This problem of boycott is unfortunately a very real factor for Israel and associated countries. The reactor is being built under the direction of Israeli scientists as part of the effort to build up a scientific competence. Many technicians and scientists have been trained in other countries, particularly France. On December 19 the French Foreign Office made an announcement regarding [Page 397]the scope of French and Israeli cooperation on this project and giving assurances concerning peaceful utilization of the reactor. The Ambassador was instructed to confirm the substance of this French statement.

Secretary Herter said that this principle of peaceful utilization was very important. He asked what specifically was being done with the plutonium produced in the reactor. The Ambassador said he could not answer and would have to obtain information. He continued that the reactor upon completion would be open to students from friendly countries. The small reactor constructed with U.S. assistance is useful only for studies. Israel foresees a need for an adequate body of trained people for industrial use of atomic energy which is a recognized ultimate requirement of Israel. The reactor is estimated to cost 5 million dollars a year in addition to local currency costs for the conventional structures. The Government will, as the Secretary suggested, underline that the facility is only for peaceful purposes.

The Ambassador continued that the appraisal of United States experts regarding the facility was wrong. The size was not 100 to 300 megawatts but rather 24 megawatts. The structure observed in the photographs was only a water tower; this was a water-cooled and not an air-cooled reactor.

The Ambassador said that there would be a statement on this subject by the Prime Minister in the Knesset on the following day. The earlier announcement referred to by the Secretary on December 93 had been held up as a result of the U.S. inquiry because the Israeli Government saw no urgency. In view of recent press excitement a statement could no longer be deferred. The Secretary remarked that the Department had certainly not stimulated the press stories. He thought it would be useful if the forthcoming public statement could emphasize (a) the peaceful and open character of the facility, and (b) the use to be made of the plutonium and the safeguards thereon. The Ambassador said that he doubted that there would be time for any changes. The Secretary recalled that Israel like the United States had voted for a system of safeguards in the International Atomic Energy Agency and emphasized the concern that might be aroused if plutonium were known to be floating around loose.

The Ambassador expressed appreciation for the arrangements for a quiet meeting. In the present situation and after the statement by the Department on the previous day4 he felt that he had to inform the press that he had called and conveyed information. He provided a draft statement which he expected to make to the press stating that the information requested had been furnished. The Secretary pointed out [Page 398]that this would focus press attention on him and suggested that it might be stated that the information furnished would be the basis of Ben Gurion’s statement on the following day. Mr. Gazit pointed out that it would not be possible to guarantee precisely what the Prime Minister would say and that he might not go into as much detail.

The Secretary requested that to insure accuracy the information communicated be incorporated in an aide-mémoire. Mr. Farley pointed out that some points were not quite clear. He asked whether the rating of the reactor was 24 megawatts thermal or 24 megawatts electrical, pointing out that in the latter case the size would be in the range of the U.S. estimate. He asked also whether the reactor would include any power generating facilities to draw off useful electric power on an experimental basis. The Ambassador said that he would have to inquire. The Secretary suggested that when these questions and the ones he had raised could be answered the aide-mémoire might be provided.

The Ambassador returned again to his need to say something to the press. The Secretary reiterated that the Department’s statement had been occasioned by TV interview statements and charges by Radio Moscow. He suggested that the Ambassador’s call might be characterized as a preliminary report. The Ambassador expressed the hope that the United States would now make a reassuring statement bringing the doubts which had been raised to an end. His instructions were to reassure the Secretary regarding the peaceful purposes of the reactor. Any implication that his reply was not complete would stimulate further speculation and doubt. The Secretary asked again for more details on safeguards. The Ambassador said that the facility would take some 3 years to complete and that it would have no relationship to a weapons capacity. He referred again to the French statement. He said that the Prime Minister would state that the facility when completed would be open to students. The Secretary expressed the hope that the public statement would clearly distinguish between the small U.S. assisted reactor and the new reactor.

Mr. Farley expressed the hope that the statement by the Prime Minister would be comprehensive and would be explicitly clear that it included all Israeli atomic facilities. He recalled that at the December 9 discussion we had mentioned the numerous reports of a power reactor. He suggested also that, even though the Israeli Government might not wish to open the facility to students of all friendly countries during the construction period, it might find it advantageous to invite some selected foreign scientists to visit the installation who could then speak authoritatively regarding its scope and peaceful nature.

[Page 399]

The Ambassador said that he would revise his brief statement in the light of the discussion and not say anything to the press until later in the evening.5

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 884A.1901/12–2060. Secret. Drafted by Farley, initialed by Jones, and approved in S on December 27. A summary of the conversation was transmitted to Tel Aviv in telegram 464, December 20. (Ibid., 784A.5611/12–2060)
  2. Herter had been in Paris December 16–18 for the North Atlantic Council meeting.
  3. See Document 178.
  4. For text of this statement, see Department of State Bulletin, January 9, 1961, p. 45.
  5. On December 24, Ambassador Reid held a similar conversation with Ben Gurion. (Telegram 577 from Tel Aviv, December 24; Department of State, Central Files, 884A.1901/12–2460)