Pieter Teirlinck
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Belgium and the bomb
Foto: Luc Barbé

Belgium and the bomb

This fall Vrede vzw, together with Pax Christi, CNAPD and Vredesactie, is setting up a collective campaign advocating for the removal of US nuclear weapons from Kleine Brogel.

An interview with Luc Barbé, former Cabinet Secretary for Secretary of Energy Olivier Deleuze, from 1999 to 2003

translated from Dutch by Jago Kosolosky

This fall Vrede vzw, together with Pax Christi, CNAPD and Vredesactie, is setting up a collective campaign advocating for the removal of US nuclear weapons from Kleine Brogel. President Obama has announced in June in Berlin that he intents to reduce the number of deployed US strategic nuclear weapons by up to one third. The NATO-related US nuclear weapons, which can be found on Belgian soil, were to become the subject of discussion on bold reductions. This way, the Belgian government can finally make clear, without facing repercussions, that we want to get rid of these nuclear arms. In this magazine and on our website many analyses on nuclear weapons and the Belgian government’s position are readily available. However, it is also interesting to take a look at the history of global nuclear armament and nuclear proliferation, more specifically looking at the very significant role Belgium has played in this destructive tale. Luc Barbé wrote an intriguing book on the subject, ‘België en de bomb’ (‘Belgium and the bomb’ Ed.), which can be downloaded for free atë-en-de-bom.

Belgium has the dubious honor to have supplied the uranium used in the American nuclear bombs detonated above Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Looking at the history of Belgium, World War II is the only period where the country has played a role of importance in world history. This happened unexpectedly and without a conscious decision surrounding it – it had to do with geology more than with anything else. In the Belgian Congo the Belgian mining company Union Minière, the current Umicore, had excavated uranium ore. At the time the Belgian Congo allegedly was the only place in the world where such a supply of the valuable ore was to be found. Uranium ore had been discovered in Canada and the US as well but in much smaller quantities and the quality was far worse. The US quickly thought of Belgium and its uranium once it decided to produce a nuclear weapon. The nuclear arms race started during World War II; the US knew that Germany had a nuclear weapon program and wanted to beat the Third Reich to the finish line at all costs. Edgar Sengier, head of Union Minière, was contacted by the US. To the astonishment of the US though, hundreds of tons of uranium were stored on American soil already. Edgar Sengier had shipped his supplies there just before war broke out. This uranium was then sold to the US.

Later on the Belgian government got involved because the US wanted to prevent that the Congolese uranium would end up in British hands after the war. After long and hard discussions a trilateral agreement between the US, Great-Britain and Belgium surfaced. Belgium gave the US right of first refusal with regards to almost all the uranium ore in Congo for years to come. As part of the exchange Union Minière receives a sum of money and the Belgian government is promised nuclear technology; after the war when the US will start developing the technology for civilian purposes Belgium will cash in. But after the war a giant diplomatic quarrel erupts between the countries. The US realizes very quickly that the civilian and military aspects of nuclear technology are inseparable. The Belgians are furious: the uranium was sold but talks of American technology transfer turn out to have been empty promises.

Has the uranium supplied by Union Minière only been used for the 2 nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan?

This is the biggest misunderstanding in the collective memory of our country. Belgium did not only supply the uranium for the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it did a great deal more. The several thousands of tons of uranium ore from our, at the time, colony sold to the US, have resulted in hundreds of nuclear bombs. The main source of uranium for the development of the whole nuclear weapon industry during the first 10 years after the Second World War was the Belgian-Congo. It is only afterwards that the uranium mines of Australia, South-Africa and Canada came in the picture.

Did Belgium only supply the material for the American nuclear arsenal?

Belgium also delivered to Britain, as was determined in the trilateral agreement. Consequently the British nuclear force is also based on uranium supplied by Belgium. Before the Second World War Union Minière had also sold a few tons of uranium to France for scientific research. The French hid the supply of uranium in a mine in Morocco and only brought it out after the war. The uranium from the Belgian Congo has consequently been at the roots of the French nuclear weapon program, definitely regarding its research component. Later on France found the needed uranium ore to make nuclear weapons on its own soil.

In your book ‘België en de Bom’ you state that Union Minière also supplied uranium to Nazi-Germany. 

Union Minière is open about this, it has opened up its archives for two historians and these painful episodes of the company’s history are described in detail in the book that resulted from the research: ‘Van mijnbouw tot Mars’ (‘From mining to Mars’ Ed.). After the war the military investigations unit started an investigation: was the delivery of uranium to Nazi-Germany not a clear case of treason? Nonetheless, the file got shelved because of political pressure. But at the roots of the Nazi nuclear weapon program was uranium from the Belgian Congo. Fortunately the German scientists made a few fundamental errors because of which they never succeeded to make any considerable progress towards developing a nuclear weapon.

Even Russia supposedly had uranium from the Belgian Congo?

This is not one hundred percent certain. At the end of the war, when the allied forces had beaten Nazi-Germany, both the Americans and the Russians composed a special military unit that accompanied the troops in the frontline to intercept all the German nuclear materials and scientists. The US dismantled the nuclear installations and brought the German nuclear scientists to America, where many were swayed to work for the US. The Russians did exactly the same thing and probably were able to seize uranium from the Belgian Congo. This could be at the roots of the Russian nuclear weapon program. It would be interesting to examine in the Russian archives whether this is the case.

Four out of five recognized nuclear weapon states, that together form the permanent members of the UN Security Council, probably got their uranium from Belgium. But there is more, in your book you describe how Israel was able to get a hold of 200 tons of uranium from Union Minière.

This happened through a spectacular operation of the Israeli secret service, the Mossad. The account of these events has a lot in common with a classic espionage story. The Israeli secret service had a little chemical firm in Germany buy 200 tons of uranium in Belgium in 1968. Next, the shipment of uranium was shipped to an Italian textile company for processing with a ship that was bought just recently and had its crew replaced by Mossad agents. The ship never arrived in Italy and disappeared for two weeks in the Mediterranean without a trail. The cargo, which equaled the material needed for a few dozens of nuclear bombs, eventually ended up in Israeli hands. Eight years later this tale came to light and a debate arose in the European Parliament, though without much consequence. This while there are a lot of relevant questions that remain unanswered. How is it that Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community Ed.) supplied an export license for this shipment of uranium? It is Euratom’s task to ensure that nuclear material is only used for civilian purposes. And why has the European Commission never informed the European Parliament on the fact that 200 tons of uranium disappeared. In legal terms everything regarding licenses was in order – in those days legislation on the issue was far more lenient. But anyone who received such a file for approval would have realized that it is completely bizarre that a small German petrochemical company ships 200 tons of uranium to Italy for processing by a textile company. This is a serious blemish on the reputation of Belgian government. After all, our country had only shortly before that signed the Non-Proliferation treaty that strongly emphasizes preventing the diffusion of nuclear arms.

The exclusive trade contract between Belgium and the US concerning the delivery of uranium (until 1955 Ed.), was a secret agreement. Is a fair relationship between democracy and nuclear weapons impossible?

I have studied the nuclear weapon programs of about fifteen countries and Belgium plays a role in about a dozen of them. In none of these countries a parliament made the decision on booting a nuclear weapon program. Often it was hardly the complete government making the call. Instead only a few people, mostly the head of the government with a few loyalists and some nuclear scientists, were behind the call. Hence the decisions were always highly undemocratic. Even today Belgian, German and Dutch parliaments do not receive an official answer from the government when they ask whether or not nuclear weapons are based on the country’s territory. The history of nuclear weapons is a history shaped by ambiguities and lies; this is the case in Belgium as well. Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens for example bluntly lied in 1949 in the Belgian Senate concerning the secret uranium agreements with Great-Britain and the US. The Israeli and Pakistani Prime Ministers and Presidents even lied to the US, their ally, concerning their nuclear weapon programs.

The US absolutely wanted to stop other countries from getting their hands on nuclear weapons. It wanted to maintain its virtual monopoly. But the Israelis played diplomatic games and mislead the American inspectors in Israel until the nuclear weapon arsenal was fully developed. Eventually the US and Israel reached an, again secret, agreement: Israel gets to keep its nuclear weapons but it cannot state openly that it has nuclear arms. Israel considers its nuclear weapon program a guarantee for survival. It makes for a gigantic strategic advantage. Nobody will ever attack Israel because everyone knows the country has nuclear weapons.

Back to Belgium; in your book you talk of a gap in the Belgian memory, what do you mean by that?

The collective memory of a country or a community is per definition subjective and incomplete, and the result of the workings of journalists, politicians and scientists among others. In Belgium we suffer from a clear cut case of nuclear amnesia. The whole episode on Congolese uranium and all the Belgian nuclear cases later on are not present in our collective memory. Edgard Sengier was perhaps the most influential Belgian in the history of the country but nobody can recall his name. Of course this amnesia is not accidental – some groups and sectors in society benefit greatly from it.

You call this ‘Framing’.

Just a recent example. Prince Laurent plants trees in Israel and created a big media scandal in doing so. His act was an implicit backing of the Israeli colonization of Palestine. A journalist of MO* (Flemish magazine focusing on globalization issues) writes an article on the fact that two Flemish companies sold nuclear dual-use material (employable both for civilian and military purposes Ed.) to Israel. The story of Prince Laurent was reported on extensively by the press, while the story on the dual-use material fails to get picked up anywhere.

How can one explain this?

Professor Rik Coolsaet brilliantly describes the importance of export for our country in his book ‘België en zijn buitenlandse politiek 1830-2000’. Our country thrives off of export so export can never be anything but good. In this area we have a lot of trouble acknowledging that we sometimes cross the line quite seriously. The peace movement points out, among other things, the export of high-tech flight simulators to Israel, the dreams of every soldier. The technology and companies are applauded by the media but critical thoughts on these exports barely make the press and only seldom lead to a parliamentarian question. The fact that our companies and their exports we love and cherish so deeply overstep the mark once in a while does not line up with the ‘peace image’ we have of ourselves. The more we consider ourselves to be a peace region, the harder it becomes to see that technology slips through the cracks and reaches countries such as Iran or Israel with cooperation of Flemish senior officials and Minister-President Peeters of Flanders. This has everything to do with ‘business’ and nothing with ‘peace’. I do not categorically disapprove of technology or the export of it. The export of quality bikes and Barco-screens for music festivals is fine by me. But it is important that we devote enough attention to how Flanders is often ‘framed’ as a peace region. On a federal level a very careful policy has been put forward the last couple of years concerning the export of nuclear dual-use material. (export is a regional responsibility but for these kind of goods federal permission is required Ed.) We do not have to be naïve about this, the main reason for this policy is because the US sees it as an important issue. On the Flemish level however, all that matters is export. Kris Peeters’ Flanders reproduces and consolidates the old mercantilist Belgium on which the French diplomats reported that it was only interested in one thing; ‘le commerce’. (trade Ed.) Regionalizing export policy in this area has thus been dramatic. I call for a European nuclear export policy. On the European level it should be possible to come to an agreement on the proliferation of nuclear material. The age-old argument of internal competition between the European countries, “If we refuse to export it, the Italians or the French will”, would vanish overnight. Furthermore, it would be much easier to impose a global norm in the future. Acting as a European entity in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, at the Non-Proliferation conferences and towards the International Atomic Energy Agency would give far more weight to our message. Maybe this sounds utopic but this proposition if far less radical then the introduction of the euro for example.

Union Minière was not the only Belgian company involved in exporting nuclear material. You describe in your book how, among others, Belgonucleaire (specialized in plutonium technology Ed.) and SCK (Belgian Nuclear Research Centre Ed.) were involved with supplying nuclear material or knowledge to countries such as Pakistan and Libya. Are these kinds of deals behind us?

Belgonucleaire has played a scandalous part in the seventies and eighties in several nuclear programs in countries such as Pakistan, Libya, South-Korea and Taiwan. The company has had to terminate its activities in several of these countries at the request of the US; the provision of plutonium technology is incredibly proliferation sensitive. In the eighties SCK undertook a very dubious trip to Pakistan and was in touch with the Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission, that works both on civilian and military nuclear technology. These things are unthinkable today but in 2010 Belgonucleaire, SCK and Tractebel signed a principle agreement with the approval of Prime Minister Yves Leterme with China concerning the shipping of MOX (Mixed Oxides, a mixture of plutonium and uranium which can serve as a fuel for nuclear power plants Ed.) and plutonium technology. A purely civilian matter, it was stated, and on top of that China is not allowed to export the technology. But history has shown many cases of re-exports of nuclear technology. As I said before; you won’t find any matter surrounded by as many lies as proliferation sensitive technology. That is how it has been for the last sixty years. Therefore, making such a deal with China is absolutely outrageous, even if it is a recognized nuclear weapons state. We must not forget that China has supplied nuclear technology in the past to countries such as Iran and North-Korea. But the Mox deal with China at least happened out in the open. Out of the spotlight there have been recent deals for supplying nuclear dual-use technology to Iran and Israel by hi-tech SMEs in Flanders. In 2005 for example Epsi, the company from Temse supplied an isostatic press to Iran which could potentially be used for manufacturing nuclear weapons. Today transfers from sensitive technology out of Belgium still take place.

Did the argument of internal European competition play a big part in the Mox deal with China?

Few people know this but Belgium takes the international lead when it comes to plutonium technology with Belgonucleaire, which is hardly anything to be proud of. Areva, the French company, is the only significant competitor in the field. The US quit decades ago. Plutonium technology, waste reprocessing, Mox, all of this is intrinsically connected to military technology. Every nuclear engineer is aware of this.

When we advocate against nuclear weapons, is it possible to retain nuclear energy? Will we ever get the genie back in the bottle?

In 1945 Oppenheimer (American theoretical physicist who played a major role in the Manhattan Project Ed.) wrote a report on non-proliferation commissioned by the US government. His conclusion was that civilian and military nuclear technology were inseparable. Accordingly, the US consistently exported no knowledge or technology for the first seven year. Later on the US dropped this strict export ban because of geopolitical, diplomatic and commercial reasons.

But how do we get the genie back in the bottle? First of all we all have to agree that military and civilian aspects of nuclear technology are intrinsically entwined. In itself this is quite the task already. Among the public this conviction has faded, in line with the wishes of the civilian nuclear sector because the last thing it wants is to be associated with nuclear weapons. And besides, the process will take decades. The International Atomic Energy Agency has a twofold mission; promote nuclear energy and retain proliferation. This situation is absurd and should be changed. Looking at the history of countries with a nuclear weapon program it becomes clear that all of them started developing nuclear weapons in secret and/or through a civilian program. Civilian and military use has always been intertwined. Do we have any certainty that countries that are just kicking off nuclear energy programs do not cherish military ambitions?

What should the Belgian government do to have the nuclear weapons removed from the country?

The government agreement should contain clear language on the issue; without it nothing will happen. But clear language is hardly a guarantee for change. In 2007 the government agreement contained a strong phrase on revising the NATO agreements dealing with the transportation of military material. Unfortunately a revision never took place. One starts to wonder who in fact makes the calls concerning Belgian defense and safety policy. Apparently Belgium has done some outsourcing to NATO and the US, and that is that. Still, the recent speech of Obama in Berlin did create an opening. Also, next year’s elections are an opportunity to see where all Belgian parties stand.

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