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Bonn's Proliferation Policy

By Gary Milhollin

The New York Times
January 4, 1989, Page A21


It should come as no surprise that a West German company has been accused of helping Libya build a plant to produce poison gas. If true, this is only the latest in a long line of irresponsible West German exports.

Citing intelligence reports, Reagan Administration officials charge that the West German company Imhausen-Chemie played a central role in the design and construction of the Libyan plant.

The company's president, Dr. Jurgen Hippenstiel-Imhausen, has denied any participation, and Libya insists the installation will be used only to make pharmaceuticals. The West German Government says that its investigation so far does not prove that the company is guilty of the charges.

But Bonn has rarely done much to discover or stop dangerous exports.

A West German company, Karl Kolb, was identified in 1984 as the unwitting source of equipment that Iraq used to manufacture the nerve gas it used against Iran. And, for at least a decade, West German companies have been the principal suppliers of secret atom bomb programs around the world.

To South Africa, West German companies sent low-enriched uranium, which multiplied Pretoria's ability to make high-enriched uranium for bombs.

To Israel went heavy water, which increased the output of Israel's bomb-making reactor at Dimona. To Argentina went heavy water that could run a secret bomb-making reactor in the future.

To Pakistan went an entire factory to help process uranium for bombs, plus tritium and tritium-making equipment to multiply the explosive power of its first generation of nuclear bombs.

To India went ''reflector material'' - probably beryllium for the core of the bomb itself - and enough heavy water to let India run for the first time three large bomb-making reactors outside international controls.

Many of the nuclear exports lacked the required licenses. Companies are likely to have conspired with the recipients to move the goods across borders. The fact is, most of the exports were expressly forbidden by West German pledges under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and raise strong questions whether Bonn cares about the treaty at all.

Outside protests have failed to stop the transfers. The United States asked Bonn in 1981 to stop the Hempel Group, in Dusseldorf, from sending enriched uranium to South Africa and heavy water to Argentina. Switzerland asked in 1985 for information about the same Hempel Group's sale of heavy water to India through Zurich.

In 1986, Washington asked Bonn to stop Hempel from sending heavy water to India, and warned in a memo of an even larger scheme to sell heavy water ''coordinated from within West Germany by Hempel Company officials.'' Norway asked West Germany in 1988 to investigate Hempel's sale of Norwegian heavy water to India through Basel. In every case, Bonn refused to provide information, investigate or acknowledge any gap in its laws.

Why is West Germany so lax? To promote trade, Bonn has deliberately kept its export laws weak, and it doesn't want to think about tightening them. And the staff for policing sensitive exports is woefully inadequate, making it easy for an unscrupulous operator to evade controls.

But it's not just a matter of Bonn overzealously promoting exports or neglecting to plug gaps in the regulations. The illegal exports have been going on for more than a decade, and Bonn has been warned repeatedly about violations.

The truth lies deeper, and has finally exasperated American officials, leading them to the extraordinary step of publicly naming the company they think is involved in building the Libyan plant and even revealing that President Reagan asked Chancellor Helmut Kohl for help in their November meeting. They have told me privately that West German nuclear exporters are being protected by powerful political allies.

We have no proof that West German political leaders are being paid to look the other way. But the behavior of the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, who run the country, is not encouraging. Some of them have banded together in Parliament to defend Hempel, arguing that the company has not violated German law. Moreover, they refuse to consider whether the law is so full of holes that it must be tightened.

This attitude not only threatens world security but will harm West Germany's international reputation unless Bonn acts immediately to curtail illegal exports and better monitor those sensitive items that could be misused by importing nations.

Regardless of gaps in its laws, the West German Government should not be in the position of defending the sale to third world nations of materials to make nuclear and chemical bombs. If West Germany's foreign trade law is inadequate, as it obviously is, officials should admit that fact and change it.

If Bonn is determined to act responsibly, then it should talk to the governments of the importing countries about returning items that were obtained illegally. The surest way to halt the nuclear black market is for countries to publicly demand their goods back.

Norway, for example, has just asked India to account for the Norwegian heavy water that was delivered by Hempel illegally in 1983. Norway may confront India in the United Nations if India refuses.

West Germany can still show the world that it is not an exporter of mass destruction. First, however, it must quit pretending that nothing is wrong.

CORRECTION-DATE: January 6, 1989, Friday, Late City Final Edition

An article on Wednesday incompletely identified a West German company allegedly involved in illegal shipments of nuclear materials to third world countries. The company is Alfred Hempel KG GmbH & Company of Dusseldorf, not the F. W. Hempel Company Inc., also of Dusseldorf.

Gary Milhollin, professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

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