Norway’s Halden reactor institute skirting law by sharing nuclear research for potential military use

Publish date: September 11, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

A major Norwegian nuclear technology institute has, as the result of Bellona legal pressure, admitted it has carelessly shared nuclear fuel technologies with other countries in contravention of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry’s regulations guiding the release of such sensitive information.

As a result of a police report filed in May by Bellona general director and nuclear physicist Nils Bøhmer, Norway’s Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) – which runs the country’s Halden research reactor – has come clean that it should have handled several research agreements, some involving foreign militaries via the appropriate channels.

The unique qualities of the Halden reactor allow for a wide array of nuclear experiments that can have direct military applications, said Bøhmer. Research contracts with the Halden reactor are therefore overseen by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in connection with international non-proliferation principles.  

The Halden reactor’s own ethical guidelines state that it will not “export technology or materials that can be used for another nation’s military capacity without export permits from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” the Norwegian daily VG reported.

The nuclear research in question involves developing fuel for nuclear submarines that can last substantially longer than traditional fuels, thus allowing military submarines to remain at sea for greater lengths of time without refueling.

bodytextimage_nils.png Nils Bøhmer, Bellona's executive director. (Photo: Bellona) Photo: Tone foss aspevoll/bellona

According to Bøhmer, that research is likely now in the hands of Russia, the US, Brazil, Argentina, and France.

The agreements the IFE has secured with nuclear research institutes in these countries circumvent Foreign Affairs Ministry approval as well as Halden’s own stated policies, said Bøhmer.

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign affairs confirmed it had not received any documents pertaining to the deal in place between IFE and Brazil before the case was brought to its attention by Bellona and newspaper reports in late spring.

On May 12, the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo reported that the Halden reactor was carrying out so-called irradiation tests for Brazil’s navy as part of the development of the country’s first generation of nuclear submarines, VG reported. The first of these submarines is to be commissioned in 2023.

The IFE emphasized that no uranium fuel was ever to be exported, only reports on the experiments.

Deal sailed under the radar for two years

According to the VG report, the deal between the IFE and Brazil has been in effect for two years prior to its discovery.

According to Bøhmer, “the IFE seems to be selling know-how to the highest bidder” without regard to its possible military application.

This is especially dicey, he said, in the hands of non-NATO bloc nations, such as Russia and Brazil and Argentina.

“Research handling is out of control,” said Bøhmer, who noted that several other stop gaps, such as Norwegian Minister for Trade and Industry, Trond Giske, should have red-flagged the research sharing deals.  The Ministry for Trade and Industry oversees IFE.

“What happens at the IFE is [Giske’s] responsibility, but did he know what kind of research the institute was participating in? Have all customers been civilian?” said Bøhmer. “There is every reason to question the common sense of these scientists when they wait until the case comes out in the media before applying permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

The allegations that the IFE skirted Ministry of Foreign Affairs approval for the export of nuclear technological know-how, which could be used for military purposes are currently under investigation.

If found guilty it could lead to fines and even jail time for IFE upper brass, Bøhmer said Tuesday. 

Systematic institutional oversight failures

Bøhmer initially reported his suspicions to Norwegian investigative bodies in May.

In a letter to Bellona from the Ministry of Trade and Industry dated July 1, the ministry said that the IFE “is an independent foundation,” and that the Ministry was not involved in “considering or approving individual research projects” related to the Halden reactor.

“The IFE has again proved that they need close monitoring and control,” said Bøhmer.”[Trade and Industry Minister] Giske has not taken the necessary responsibility.”

At current, the IFE has said it has secured licensing agreements with Brazil, and released documents (in Norwegian) on its website relative to the Brazilian deal that it was previously jealously guarding as a commercial secret.

IFE confession beings more deals to light

The IFE said in the release that it “has identified a number of collaborative projects that we, in hindsight, should have licensed in the same was as the cooperation with Brazil. This includes bilateral agreements with the US, Russia, Argentina and France. “

The released documents show that the IFE has probably contributed to the development of fuel for Russian and American nuclear submarines as well.

The release was only secured after the Bellona police report on the IFE detailed that the original deal skirted export controls and supplied Brazil with research that could benefit its military reactor fuel program.

Fridtjov Øwre, IFE’s research director apologized in an interview with VG newspaper when Bellona filed the police report in May

“We made a mistake,” told VG. “We should have applied for an export license when we signed the contract with Brazil in 2011.”

Regarding cooperation with the French, Bøhmer said “we know that there are very close ties between the civilian and military nuclear industries in France. The IFE may well have also contributed to the military there.”

Following the recently released confession from IFE, said Bøhmer, the Norwegian police must hasten their investigation.

“This shows very clearly that things are not as they should be at the IFE,” said Bøhmer. 

Andreas Kokkvoll Tveit contributed to this report.