The Friday of January 22, 1965, was one of those cold and gray English winter mornings. London may have been starting to swing, but not around 10 Downing Street, the British prime minister’s residence. The press were camped outside the premier’s front door as he faced a new crisis.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson had woken up to find his parliamentary majority cut to three after a shock overnight by-election defeat for his Labour Party. The last Conservative government had imploded after a series of spy scandals that would have been farcical if they weren’t so serious. MI6 officer Kim Philby had been revealed as a KGB spy after he fled to Moscow, and then-Secretary of State for War John Profumo had been forced to resign when it emerged he was having an affair with model and showgirl Christine Keeler, who was also the mistress of the Soviet naval attaché. The last thing Wilson needed was another major scandal, let alone a spy scandal.
A black, official Jaguar limo came around the corner, past the Westminster Underground station, where the Evening Standard newspaper sellers would be screaming out “Wilson poll shock!” and “Churchill latest!” (Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s legendary war hero, was on his deathbed.) The Jaguar stopped outside 70 Whitehall, the back door to 10 Downing Street.
Unseen by the press, a small man wearing glasses slipped into the anonymous black doors of the Cabinet Office. He was 58, but looked younger. His name was Nyman Levin. In photographs he appears kind and clever, like a trusted family doctor.
There is a photo of this man lawn bowling happily with his colleagues. You wouldn’t think he was a master of doomsday. Then you notice a sign noting the location: the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment Bowling Club. Nyman was the big boss of that establishment. As such, he held one of the most sensitive jobs of the Crown.
Levin knew every British — and almost every American — nuclear weapons secret, including the most alarming fact that the United States’ ultimate deterrent at the time, the submarine-launched Polaris missile, was faulty and might not ultimately work.
Decades later, we learned from a well-placed source that Levin was being quietly investigated at the time on suspicion he was leaking nuclear secrets to Israel. Even today, however, more than half a century on, citing reasons of national security, the British government firmly refuses to confirm or deny whether Levin was under investigation. Indeed, the British government fought the authors tooth and nail to prevent the release of any relevant files about Levin.
Possible security risk
We don’t know whether Levin was actually helping Israel’s nuclear efforts. But if he was, that ride into Whitehall would have been tense. Levin took medication for angina, but was otherwise in good health. British security officials had questioned him about his connections to Israel before, and it had not been a pleasant experience for him.
Just three days earlier, he had been abruptly eased out of his job as head of the British nuclear weapons program at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE), in Aldermaston, in the south of England. Now he had been summoned to the Cabinet Office, where he was supposed to be attending a secret meeting about nuclear weapons with Sir Solly Zuckerman, the government’s chief scientific adviser. Zuckerman, two years Levin’s senior, was another Jew who had been investigated as a possible security risk.
We don’t know whether the meeting was really a pretext to get Levin into Whitehall, and then perhaps quiz him about any connections he had to Israel. We do know that Levin walked into the foyer of the Cabinet Office. Zuckerman arrived just behind him, and later gave an eyewitness account of the scene: “I saw Dr. Nyman Levin, the director of the nuclear weapons establishment at Aldermaston, lying outstretched on the floor.” (Zuckerman may not have been told that Levin was no longer the director — or perhaps he preferred to ignore it.) Levin, Zuckerman added, “had not even managed to get to the lift before suffering a heart attack.” He was rushed across Westminster Bridge to St. Thomas’ Hospital, where he regained consciousness, but died the following Monday.
Perhaps fortuitously for Prime Minister Wilson, Levin’s shocking demise went unnoticed because the British public was focused on another death: On Sunday January 24, Churchill, by wide consensus the greatest Englishman of the 20th century, passed away at 90. Churchill was remembered, above all, for rallying the British in their finest hour, standing alone against the Nazis in the summer of 1940, and for his postwar warning of Stalin’s “Iron Curtain” coming down across Europe.
But the British tended to forget that Churchill was also the first politician to realize that an atom bomb could be built, and to order his scientists and military to do so, even if they were eventually overtaken by U.S. industrial might. Now, one of the guardians of the secrets of the nuclear bomb had died while apparently under investigation.
There was no public hint that Levin had ever come under suspicion. Any such scandal would have been terrible news for the British prime minister, and devastating news for the increasingly strained relationship with the Americans. Indeed, to this day, the story remains unknown.
Ahead of his time
In public, as the man at the top of the British nuclear priesthood, Levin was unambiguously in favor of the nuclear deterrent. Privately, though, he expressed doubts: 'What happens if you drop it?'
Nyman Levin was a genius, a man years ahead of his time. For example, he envisaged flat-screen televisions as early as 1934. That year, he was the first to patent liquid crystal displays (LCDs), and to describe them as “suitable for television.” He made breakthroughs in radar and radio, and worked on all sorts of advanced weaponry. He also happened to be trusted with every British and American nuclear secret.
Levin was born in the East End of London in 1906, a time when 100,000 Jews lived in its tightly packed streets. Most were recent immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. His father, Lewis (Leibisch) Levin, had a small business making paper bags, which he sold to local shops.
Levin was sent to the Central Foundation Boys’ School, but had to leave at 16 to work in the family business. He was determined to be a scientist, took physics evening classes and won a scholarship to Imperial College, London. For generations afterward, Nyman Levin was held up as an example within the extended family of what can be achieved by determination and hard work: Younger members of the extended Levin clan would be asked, “Why can’t you be like Nyman?”
From Imperial he moved to the Marconi telecom company, where in the 1930s he developed some of the technologies that made television practical. He registered multiple patents in the United Kingdom and United States.
After World War II began, Levin’s research helped lead to the super high-frequency radar which allowed night fighters to intercept Luftwaffe bombers over Britain. He developed the VHF radio networks that allowed commanders to communicate with their forces on D-Day, and he was one of the first civilians to land on the Normandy beaches.
After the war, Levin developed guided weapons for the Royal Navy, as well as improvising underwater TV cameras to find a missing submarine. His son Peter told us, “He was always a practical sort of person.” The early 1950s was also when Nyman Levin first became involved with nuclear weapons, as the navy proposed putting kiloton warheads on his new Sea Slug missiles.
Peter Levin, today in his 70s, remembers that if Nyman was called to Whitehall for a meeting, he’d ask his driver to stop outside Harrods on the way back so he could pick up kippered herring for tea from the food hall. The family was very much part of the local Jewish community in Surbiton, in southwest London, where they lived. Levin helped buy the land for a new synagogue there.
In 1955, he was headhunted by Rank Precision Industries, which was looking for new products. Levin quickly spotted that the new U.S. Xerox machines were going to revolutionize office life, and he built the first photocopier factory – a joint venture between the two firms – in Europe. During the war, he had traveled to the United States on several occasions to brief American scientists. Now he was making regular trips to Xerox’s headquarters in Rochester, New York. His firsthand knowledge of how Americans worked would prove invaluable in his next job.
Soviet spy scandal
During World War II, a small team of British scientists had gone to Los Alamos, New Mexico to assist on the Manhattan Project. After the war, though, the Americans shut Britain out from their development of nuclear weapons. After the first Soviet atomic bomb test, in late August 1949, it seemed that the Americans would resume nuclear cooperation with Britain. But that was derailed by a major British nuclear espionage scandal.
Physicist Klaus Fuchs had been one of the key members of the British scientific delegation in Los Alamos. He was born in Germany, but had fled to Britain in 1933 after Hitler came to power. He worked under Hans Bethe on the implosion design — a key element in the development of the plutonium bomb. Bethe considered Fuchs one of his “most valuable men,” and the Americans asked him to stay at Los Alamos to assist with preparations for Operation Crossroads (the first nuclear tests after World War II).
But in the United States, the mood was turning against cooperation. The U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1946 prohibited transfer of nuclear weapons-related information — defined as “restricted data” — to any foreign country, including the United Kingdom. In August 1946, Fuchs returned to Britain and was recruited as one of the key scientists to work on Britain’s then-secret atom-bomb program, which was based at an old RAF base at Harwell, near Oxford.
MI5’s job was to hunt for moles, and for many decades it was suspicious of Jews. This was partly due to latent anti-Semitism, partly to a fear that Jews would be loyal to the State of Israel over Britain.
Fuchs was able to pass on a great deal of highly classified U.S. information to the Harwell team. But what neither the British nor the Americans knew was that he was also passing the information on to Soviet intelligence.
By July 1949, information from the Venona project (the code name for a U.S. code-breaking operation against the Soviets) started to indicate that Fuchs was spying for Russia. But British authorities were hesitant to take action, partly because they didn’t want to reveal in court that the West had broken Soviet codes, and partly perhaps because Fuchs was vital to their own secret nuclear project. In December 1949, MI5 interviewed Fuchs, but he denied being a spy and carried on working at AWRE at Aldermaston. Weeks later, though, Fuchs voluntarily confessed to espionage.
After the Russians detonated their first atom bomb, the Americans flirted with the idea of making nuclear weapons for Britain. The leak in British security became a watershed in Anglo-American nuclear relations. In the end, Britain built its own weapons, detonating an atom bomb for the first time in 1952. But the Americans and Russians were moving onto more powerful, hydrogen bombs, using fusion not fission. The U.K. was now forced to play catch-up.
In the winter of 1957-58, Aldermaston physicist William Cook solved the problem of making a fusion bomb for the British. A series of hydrogen bombs were detonated on Christmas Island and, once Britain had reached that capability, the Americans finally agreed to share their nuclear secrets again.
At the same time, Cook was recruiting his old friend Nyman Levin to Aldermaston. Levin’s initial appointment was as deputy director, but the following year, in 1959, he took over as chief. Nyman now had access to all U.S. nuclear weapons designs, as well as the British ones.
In public, as the man at the top of the British nuclear priesthood, Levin was unambiguously in favor of the nuclear deterrent. Privately, though, he expressed doubts, with Peter Levin saying his father would tell him, “What happens if you drop it? And if you’re not going to drop it, why have it?” At the time some American scientists were pushing the idea that nuclear weapons could be used in a limited way, to win wars, but Levin saw them only as a deterrent.
MI5’s job was to hunt for moles, and for many decades it was suspicious of Jews. This was partly due to latent anti-Semitism, partly to a fear that Jews would be loyal to the then newly created State of Israel over Britain. The Security Service, as it is also known, had been on the front line in pre-state Israel against the underground militias in the mid-1940s. And in the 1950s and early ’60s, MI5 had a policy of not recruiting Jews, something that was revealed by Christopher Andrew in his 2009 history of MI5, “Defend the Realm.”
All the time, MI5 sleuths were knocking on suspects’ doors as they looked for more spies. Zuckerman, who found Levin collapsed on the Cabinet Office floor, was one of Britain’s top defense scientists and a prominent Jew, but he was investigated on three separate occasions — once at the behest of the FBI — on suspicion of being a Soviet agent.
If they were sniffing about for connections to communism or loyalty to Israel, there were elements in Levin’s background that might have made an MI5 investigator suspicious. Like Nyman, his half-brother Solomon had lived in London’s East End. But when the czar of Russia was deposed in 1917, Solomon sailed to Russia to join the revolution. And Nyman’s half-sister Annie had married a left-wing agitator called Sam Leff, who organized the Workers’ Circles in the East End, which played a central role in the battle against home-grown fascism.
In 1936, the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, was threatening to become a mass movement. The group attacked Jews and Jewish property. Official Jewish organizations thought it best to keep their heads down, but the menace grew. So, in the summer of 1936, Leff’s Workers’ Circles, working with Jewish communists, formed a breakaway group: the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Anti-Semitism (JPC). It was formed to defend “the Jewish People” against the fascists, though at the time, MI5 and the police regarded the JPC as dangerous subversives. Nyman himself appears briefly to have been part of the group.
Nyman Levin’s records and family history would have been combed through as part of the vetting process before he was appointed at Aldermaston. His son Peter remembers that there was something else after he moved to AWRE: His father was interviewed by one of MI5’s “trenchcoat and trilby”-wearing interrogators – “a man in a beige mackintosh,” as Peter put it. He was asked about any communist or Israeli connections he might have. Nyman Levin was shaken by the questioning.
His connections with Israel were not unusual for a British Jew at that time. He had relatives there and he also donated to the Technion, Israel’s prestigious institute of technology in Haifa. What Levin did in the summer of 1958, soon after the appointment was made, was also natural for a British Jew, but might have looked suspicious to an MI5 spy hunter. He went on vacation to Israel, with his wife, Dora, and daughter, Rachel.
It was an interesting time for the second-in-command of Britain’s nuclear weapons program to visit Israel. The Israelis were then openly building their small Soreq nuclear reactor under the American “Atoms for Peace” program, but they were also secretly building the much larger Dimona reactor, with French assistance. Israeli intelligence would have been well aware of Levin’s almost unique access to all of Britain and America’s nuclear secrets.
MI5 became much more concerned about a potential Israel connection after discovering, in 1960, that Israel was quietly building a production reactor in the Negev. The man who made the British discovery of Dimona was Peter Kelly, who was part of a Defense Intelligence unit collecting open source and covert intelligence on foreign nuclear weapons programs.
In August 1960, the British military attaché in Tel Aviv secretly photographed a huge facility under construction at Dimona. The pictures were rushed to Kelly’s office just off Trafalgar Square and he immediately realized it was a French nuclear reactor and sounded the alarm. Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee — which consists of the heads of MI5, MI6 and other spymasters — commissioned Kelly to find out what the Israelis were up to, and what help they were getting from outside sources.
Kelly quickly learned from confidential sources in France about the deal to supply a reactor. A source on the ground at Dimona said there was a system of “underground galleries” being built under the plant, which made Kelly even more suspicious. Just three months later, by the start of November, Kelly had reached the conclusion that Israel was building a secret plant capable of making atom bombs.
The JIC concluded that, depending on the size of the reactor, Israel would be able to assemble up to “six nuclear weapons a year.” Kelly also discovered that France was not the only country assisting Israel.
Three Jewish scientists, including Nyman Levin, had been investigated for leaking nuclear secrets to Israel. Two had been cleared, but the Levin investigation was still pending .when he died in 1965
Britain had secretly supplied Israel with 20 tons of heavy water, needed for the reactor. They loaded the shipments onto Israeli ships at a British port in 1959 and 1960, for delivery straight to Israel. Civil servants had approved the deal and deliberately concealed it from the Americans. In case the transfer ever became public, officially it was a deal between a Norwegian company, Noratom, and Israel. Noratom took a 2-percent commission on the transaction.
The U.S. secretary of defense in the Kennedy administration, Robert McNamara, was shocked when the full details of the deal were shown to him by us in 2005: “The fact Israel was trying to develop a nuclear bomb should not have come as a surprise, but that Britain should have supplied it with heavy water was indeed a surprise to me,” he told the Newsnight show.
A sample of fissile material, uranium-235, was also supplied, in 1959, and another British company, Albright & Wilson, knowingly provided chemicals needed for reprocessing of plutonium from the Dimona reactor. In 1966, Britain supplied Israel with a sample of pure lithium-6 and two tons of the chemical used to make the isotope lithium-6. The most plausible use for lithium-6 is to “boost” the efficiency of nuclear warheads. It is still unclear whether these were decisions made by civil servants on their own, or whether they were covertly authorized by a minister.
Kelly was the Defense Intelligence expert on Israel’s nuclear weapons program from 1960 to 1966. It was Kelly who told us that three Jewish scientists, including Nyman Levin, had been investigated for leaking nuclear secrets to Israel. Two had been cleared, but the Levin investigation was still pending when he died in 1965.
British Defense Intelligence was concerned when it learned that Israeli nuclear scientists had been having unauthorized meetings with British atomic energy officials, and that one of them had requested to spend three months at AWRE. Kelly also believed that another Jewish civil servant, Michael Israel Michaels, had deliberately tried to mislead his political superiors about Israel’s nuclear program, and had helped it obtain nuclear materials from Britain.
Michaels was the top official at the Science Ministry dealing with nuclear affairs, and in this capacity he was among the British officials who helped establish the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957.
In May and June 1961, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met separately with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan on the Dimona issue. The Joint Intelligence Committee prepared a new report based on Kelly’s work for British Science Minister Lord Hailsham, so he could brief Macmillan ahead of the June 2 meeting with Ben-Gurion. On its way over, the report passed across the desk of Michaels, who wrote a cover note saying it was “inconclusive” — perhaps hoping that Hailsham would take his word for it and not go through the entire 21-page document.
However, Hailsham, one of the cabinet’s most senior figures, read it thoroughly and scrawled across Michaels’ note that it was “only just short of conclusive” and that the safe assumption was that Israel was making plutonium and “preparing for a weapons programme.” Hailsham also asked the JIC to find out whether Israel would have the capability to make battlefield nuclear weapons.
The meeting between Ben-Gurion and Kennedy, at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel on May 30, 1961, was amicable, even friendly. Ben-Gurion denied that Israel had a weapons program and provided a civilian rationale for the Dimona project. Indeed, that rationale seemed to be consistent with the findings of the U.S. inspections team that had visited Dimona just 10 days earlier. But Kelly, who was already aware that underground facilities were being built at Dimona, wrote that the U.S. inspection was “heavily stage managed” and that “important developments were concealed.” It subsequently turned out that Kelly’s assessment was right.
Ben-Gurion still had to deal with Macmillan. This is where Michaels stepped in again. Michaels was not a particularly observant Jew, but he was a very strong supporter of the State of Israel. At this critical point, he was invited to visit Israel by Dr. Ernst David Bergmann, then-head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. He was there between May 9 and May 21.
Defense Intelligence smelled a rat. Kelly wrote his superiors that the invitation “may be more than a coincidence.” He suspected — rightly — that Israel would tell Kennedy and Macmillan that the hitherto secret Dimona reactor had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and that it would use Michaels to produce a report to “prove that everything is above board.”
On his visit, Michaels met Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres, Ben-Gurion and Bergmann, the three key figures in Israel’s nuclear program. He saw the Dimona plant from a distance but did not go in. As Kelly had suspected, Michaels’ report played down the possibility of Israel making nuclear weapons. Michaels handed it to Lord Hailsham two days before Ben-Gurion met Macmillan at 10 Downing Street. Defense Intelligence had no time to dissect it and counter its claims. The Dimona reactor was still at the top of the agenda, but Michaels helped take some of the heat out of the discussion.
The following week, Kelly tore Michaels’ report apart line by line and wrote him, in an official response, “The assurances given you by the Israelis do not always accord with the intelligence picture.” He said the signals that Israel was trying to get the bomb were very strong — stronger than the signals had been from Russia before it detonated its first atom bomb. Kelly’s estimate was that Israel might have a “deliverable warhead” by 1967.
Kelly also appreciated why Israel wanted the bomb. He wrote to Michaels, “I should have thought myself that the argument for Israel holding independent nuclear weapons was rather stronger than for the United Kingdom holding independent nuclear weapons.” But whatever Kelly’s sympathies, Britain’s policy was to stop any further proliferation.
A year later, in 1962, Michaels was still claiming Dimona was harmless. But Defense Intelligence thought “the Israelis could have a weapon well before the end of this decade.” And in 1966, Michaels was involved in the “plutonium row.” Israel wanted to buy a small sample of plutonium from Britain, perhaps to compare with its own production. Defense Intelligence objected and the Foreign Office agreed to block the export because, “It is Her Majesty’s Government’s policy not to do anything which would assist Israel in the production of nuclear weapons.” Michaels wasn’t happy with this decision. He fought the Foreign Office and Defense Intelligence until the sale was authorized. He didn’t tell his boss, Technology Minister Tony Benn, about the sale of plutonium to Israel.
In Britain, then, we have examples of ministries agreeing to sell heavy water and other restricted items to Israel without safeguards when they shouldn’t have. We have an example of a Jewish atomic energy civil servant who repeatedly helped Israel’s cause. And the Jewish boss of the nuclear weapons program whom MI5 suspected of giving nuclear secrets to Israel. But is that so different from what happened in America?
The American experience
To put the case of Levin (and the other cited cases) into context, one must take a look at the American experience. After all, the United States is the bomb’s birthplace, the cradle of all nuclear knowledge. Were there similar cases of sympathetic Americans with access to nuclear secrets who aided the Israeli nuclear project? And if so, how did the U.S. government react to them?
In 1991, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh tackled these sensitive issues in his book “The Samson Option,” highlighting two particular cases: those of Edward Teller and Zalman Shapiro. Hersh elaborated on these incidents, but even today, more than 25 years on, both cases — like that of Nyman Levin — remain obscure and inconclusive.
While Levin kept a low profile, Teller was arguably the most well-known nuclear scientist in America after Robert Oppenheimer. Teller was the “father” of the hydrogen bomb and was the force behind the creation of the second American weapons lab, following Los Alamos, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In the 1980s, he was the inspiration behind President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative.
Teller was also known for his deep commitment to Israel, a country he visited numerous times, prior to his death in 2003. He was also recognized as the American who, beginning in the mid-to-late 1960s knew the Israeli nuclear project most intimately.
A case in point: It was Teller who informed the CIA in 1968 — via Carl Duckett, the Agency’s assistant director for science and technology — that he believed Israel had become a nuclear-weapons state, with “several weapons ready to go.” Furthermore, Teller told Duckett that if the CIA was waiting for Israel to announce itself as a nuclear state by conducting a test, it was badly mistaken. That tip, according to Duckett, was the most single convincing piece of information he ever received while at the CIA. Duckett reported it immediately to CIA director Richard Helms, who soon after briefed President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson instructed Helms not to share the information with anybody else in the administration, not even Secretary of State Dean Rusk or McNamara.
But did Teller serve only the United States? Or perhaps his tip-off was also meant to serve Israel? Years later, Prof. Yuval Ne’eman — one of Israel’s leading theoretical physicists and later a science and technology minister, who was also Teller’s closest friend in Israel — shared his own side of that story, which suggests Teller’s tip was intended to benefit Israel.
According to Ne’eman, who died in 2006, he met Teller shortly after 1967’s Six-Day War, at a physics conference in Rochester, New York. This was at a time when the negotiation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was close to completion. Teller held the view — radically different from that of the U.S. government — that it would be a grave mistake for Israel to join the NPT.
Teller told Ne’eman he wanted to talk with him privately. He took him outside, suggesting they sit back to back by a large tree, evidently trying to conceal the fact that they were having a conversation. Without eye contact, Teller told Ne’eman that he was about to inform the CIA that Israel had already acquired the bomb. Teller added that he thought the continuation of the “cat-and-mouse game” over Dimona — referring to the farcical American visits to the reactor at Dimona — had become “unhealthy” and was undermining the interests of both parties. Teller apparently thought letting the CIA know that Israel was a nuclear-weapons state would end the U.S. visits to Dimona and maybe even make the NPT issue moot.
By telling Ne’eman, Teller probably wanted to test his idea on a well-connected Israeli.
According to Ne’eman, he responded in a noncommittal way, but upon his return to Israel rushed to report his conversation to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. According to Ne’eman, Eshkol appeared comfortable with Teller’s initiative. Teller’s tip was taken seriously by the CIA because it was no secret that he had inside knowledge of the Israeli program.
But did Teller actually cross the line in supporting the Israeli nuclear program?
As in the case of Levin, we don’t know for sure. Many of the FBI’s files on Teller are still classified, so we don’t know whether Teller was ever formally investigated regarding his close relations with Israel. But there were persistent rumors that he gave technical guidance to Israel’s nuclear weapons scientists. And one thing is clear: Even if Teller was investigated, the findings never led to a criminal indictment. Either there was no evidence or someone higher up decided that the national interest required looking the other way — as the British initially did with Klaus Fuchs.
From Pennsylvania to Dimona
The other case of possible U.S. assistance to the Israeli nuclear program via a sympathetic individual involves a private company: the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), located in a suburb of Pittsburgh. The individual involved was its co-owner and president, a nuclear chemist and technical wizard named Zalman (Zal) Mordecai Shapiro, who died this past July. Shapiro, who had played a key role in the development of the reactor that powered the USS Nautilus (the world’s first nuclear submarine), also worked on the development of the fuel for the first commercial nuclear power reactor, at Shippingport, PA. Shapiro was also known as an ardent Zionist.
NUMEC was founded in 1957 by Shapiro and a group of financial-backer friends, with the purpose of inventing new methods of processing nuclear fuel. Shapiro ran NUMEC until the early 1970s, when it was sold to the Atlantic Richfield Co. and Babcock & Wilcox Westinghouse. NUMEC began manufacturing fuel for nuclear reactors in 1959, and over its lifetime processed thousands of tons of uranium, reaching a peak annual throughput of more than 700 metric tons in 1973.
Ever since the mid-1960s, there have been allegations that a significant amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU) was diverted from the Apollo plant in Pittsburgh to Israel.
It started in early 1965, when a routine inventory check by the Atomic Energy Commission of government-owned HEU that had been leased to NUMEC, discovered a significant discrepancy. In early 1966, after further investigations, the AEC confirmed that 178 kilograms (392 pounds) of HEU was missing from the Apollo plant. Within three years, the amount of missing U-235 grew to nearly 300 kilograms.
In the decades that followed, the case of the missing uranium was investigated by a host of federal agencies, including the AEC, FBI and CIA. Some of the investigators acknowledged the possibility that the HEU may have been diverted to Israel. The prevailing view at the CIA was that diversion took place, but hard proof was never found — or at least it never became public.
Nyman Levin was a supporter of Israel and we can certainly see why MI5 — particularly given its view of Jews at the time — might see him as a suspect.
Nowadays, much more is publicly known about the NUMEC affair than ever before. In 2009, the FBI declassified a 1980 sworn affidavit by a former NUMEC employee who had testified that he encountered “armed strangers” on the facility’s loading dock one night in early 1965. He claimed to witness them loading what seemed to be canisters of HEU into a truck. He insisted he had seen a shipping manifest which said the material was headed to a ship bound for Israel. He said a NUMEC manager later ordered him to keep his mouth shut about what he had seen – or else.
Over the years, the FBI has declassified numerous reports indicating that Zalman Shapiro met with a number of Israeli intelligence officials, including the Israeli “science attaché” from the embassy in Washington — all known to be related to LAKAM, Israel’s Bureau of Scientific Relations, which dealt with technology espionage. Finally, in 2015 the CIA released another set of declassified documents that give credence to the claim that in 1968 CIA personnel in Israel found microscopic evidence of the presence of HEU traceable to the United States near the nuclear facility at Dimona.
Shapiro himself always vehemently denied the allegations, insisting that no diversion took place and that the loss of all the HEU should be attributed to routine loss commonly involved in such industrial processes. “Why would I jeopardize my integrity, my life?” Shapiro told me in a phone interview a few years ago.
The late Avraham Hermoni, Israel’s one-time scientific attaché to Washington, told Avner Cohen in the 1990s that his meetings with Shapiro were all legal and proper. NUMEC provided Israel with nuclear batteries for intelligence use, and Shapiro himself also provided advice on scientific projects. “A great deal of injustice was done to this man,” Hermoni declared, in an interview a few years before he himself died in 2006.
There is a great deal that still remains publicly unknown. The NUMEC affair is still inconclusive, indeed unresolved. While suspicions do persist, they never led to an indictment. After numerous FBI investigations, some of which included the use of unauthorized wiretaps on Shapiro’s phones, the U.S. Department of Justice chose not to proceed with any legal action against him. Either the FBI couldn’t produce the evidence to make a legal case against him, or some extraordinary political and foreign policy considerations did not allow for it.
Was Levin a spy?
The week that Nyman Levin died, the biggest-grossing movie in the United States was “Goldfinger.” American audiences gasped as British MI6 superspy James Bond saved the United States from Auric Goldfinger’s devious plot to set off a nuke at Fort Knox. But by then, Lyndon B. Johnson was in the Oval Office and he knew that not everyone in MI6 was as heroic as Agent 007.
A procession of MI6 officers had confessed to spying for the KGB, and the “Profumo Affair” had helped topple Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. By April 1964, the trail had even reached Buckingham Palace, when the urbane Sir Anthony Blunt — the curator of the queen’s art collection — admitted that he too had been a Soviet spy while working in MI5. He was allowed to keep his job and it was all kept from the British public until 1979.
President Johnson could have been forgiven for thinking that Britain was a burlesque show run by upper-class twits who were also traitors. He had little patience with Prime Minister Wilson at the best of times. According to one U.S. ambassador to London, he once referred to Wilson as a “little creep.” From Johnson’s perspective, the United States was supplying Britain with the state-of-the-art Polaris submarine nuclear missile system at a cut-rate price. Yet in December 1964, when the United States had asked the United Kingdom to send a few troops to Vietnam to give the Americans some political cover for their war, Wilson had said no. All LBJ wanted was the level of support that Tony Blair would later give George W. Bush during the invasion of Iraq. In LBJ’s typically colorful words, Wilson was “peeing all over” him.
He might have uttered some other characteristically choice Texan words if he’d been told that the head of Britain’s nuclear weapons program was also under investigation for leaking nuclear secrets — including perhaps America’s most sacred secrets — to a foreign power. Given how the U.S. responded to the Klaus Fuchs affair, the Polaris deal might not have survived.
Was the Levin investigation yet another thing the British failed to tell the Americans about, like that shipment of heavy water? If so, this could explain why Levin, whether he was responsible for any leaks or not, seems to have been erased from history.
Our numerous Freedom of Information requests to the Cabinet Office about Nyman Levin were all turned down on security grounds, even though he died over 50 years ago. When we appealed to the information commissioner, he ruled that we should be given limited access, but the Cabinet Office appealed to the Information Tribunal and obtained a ruling that the files should stay closed.
Peter Kelly died in 2009 and, in any case, would not say any more once the Cabinet Office refused to release the information.
In 1959, when Levin became the boss at Aldermaston, he gave a “not for attribution” interview to the New Scientist magazine. It says he showed “quickness and shrewd intelligence,” called him funny and occasionally blunt, and certainly not pompous, an impression reinforced by photos that often showed him as the only man not wearing a hat.
But was he a spy? Nyman Levin was a supporter of Israel and we can certainly see why MI5 — particularly given its view of Jews at the time — might see him as a suspect. But we can’t come to any firm conclusion about whether he ever crossed the line and leaked any secrets. His son is sure he didn’t. “I never had a sniff of him being devious,” Peter Levin told us.
But “espionage” is probably not a helpful concept here. We know that Levin’s U.S. equivalent, Edward Teller, did help Israel in its nuclear project — but did he think he was betraying the United States? Most certainly not. Maybe the same could be said about NUMEC’S Zalman Shapiro. If Levin passed sensitive, nuclear-related information to the Israelis, would he have thought he was betraying Britain? The same answer applies: No.
Avner Cohen a professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, is the author of “Israel and the Bomb.”
Meirion Jones is the investigations editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London.