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Apollo's NUMEC allegedly supplied nuclear batteries to Israel in Six Day War

| Sunday, June 4, 2017, 1:45 a.m.
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The NUMEC plant, circa 1961, in Apollo made nuclear batteries known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which the company’s owner said were used by the Israelis to power surveillance devices in the Six Day War of 1967.
Tribune-Review
Zalman Shapiro, founder of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Nuclear batteries, known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), power NASA's space probes, which are famous for their space exploration. Here is a photo of Saturn taken by Voyager 1 in 1980.
Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy
When NUMEC was owned by ARCO, the company was commissioned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to develop the first nuclear-powered heart pacemaker. Here is a 1973 model.

On Monday, Israel will begin celebrating its victory 50 years ago in the Six Day War.

Waged June 5-10, 1967, the war pitted the outnumbered Israeli army against the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, whose forces were amassing near Israel's borders but were thwarted by pre-emptive Israeli airstrikes.

The timing of the airstrikes seemed miraculous, destroying 90 percent of the Egyptian air force while still on the ground.

But there was nothing miraculous about it, according to a now-deceased Pittsburgh nuclear scientist who claimed he provided batteries for secret listening devices planted throughout the deserts surrounding Israel that tapped into their adversaries' radio communications leading up to and during the war.

Zalman Shapiro, formerly of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, told the Tribune-Review in exclusive interviews before his death at 96 in July, that he and his company, the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) of Apollo, provided Israel with batteries powered by radioactive strontium 90.

As a result, the Israelis could listen in on their enemies' radio transmissions, garnering information on their plans and troop movements and giving the Israeli army a distinct tactical advantage.

Advanced technology

The batteries, which used non-weapons-grade nuclear materials, were revolutionary in the 1960s because of their exceptionally long life and ability to operate in darkness, in extreme temperatures and under water.

The batteries were invented at Mound Laboratories in Ohio in 1954 and powered Navy navigation satellites, weather stations in remote areas such as Antarctica and spacecraft.

But there were more covert uses for the nuclear batteries: powering surveillance devices. And NUMEC made them for the U.S. and Israeli governments, Shapiro said.

The nuclear batteries, known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), still are used in equipment that has to operate in remote and hostile environments, most notably powering NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 space probes, which were launched 40 years ago and are still working, according to Stephen Johnson, director of Idaho National Laboratory Space Nuclear Power & Isotope Technologies.

Later, NUMEC used nuclear battery technology and more powerful plutonium to help develop the first nuclear-powered cardiac pacemaker.

“At the time, the technology was quite revolutionary,” Johnson said. “The pacemaker would last for years without the need to replace them.” However, the plutonium in them was problematic to dispose of later.

A spy's game

Much has been written about the Six Day War, but little has been officially verified about the spy devices used by Israel.

A year before the war, Meir Amit, then chief of the Israeli secret service Mossad, contacted Shapiro for the long-lived nuclear batteries to install in listening devices near Israel's border with Egypt, according to Shapiro.

“He smelled a rat with regard to Egypt and what they planned to do,” said Shapiro, adding that Israel wanted a better way to monitor the build-up of military forces in Egypt.

“The batteries had to be strong enough to convey the information and had to have a range to pick up what the Egyptians were saying to their allies,” Shapiro said.

The NUMEC equipment intercepted radio transmissions, according to Shapiro. The Apollo company sent at least one engineer to Israel to make sure the equipment worked properly, he said.

The Six Day War wasn't the only clandestine project that involved NUMEC products and technologies, Shapiro said.

When Israelis visited NUMEC again in 1968, Shapiro said he was approached to develop batteries for use in devices to tap telephone lines.

Rafi Eitan, a retired longtime intelligence officer for Israel, confirmed that Israel used nuclear-powered batteries from NUMEC for its intelligence operations.

“With the batteries, I could listen to you in my living room for two years,” he told the Tribune-Review during a phone interview.

Eitan confirmed he visited NUMEC's Apollo plant with members of Israel's internal security services, their equivalent of the FBI, with the knowledge of the CIA and FBI. The FBI knew that the Israeli officers wanted to buy the nuclear batteries to use for surveillance operations, Eitan said.

“At that time, in the 1960s, when I did visit the plant, there were very few who could produce (the batteries) in the world,” Eitan said.

The FBI could not confirm the information because of the age of the case, according to Angela Bell of the FBI's Office of Public Affairs.

Oscar Gray, once vice president at NUMEC and now a retired professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, confirmed NUMEC made the batteries for Israel but said NUMEC wasn't told their real purpose.

The Israelis' “explanation was for weather data. It was to power long-usage monitors out in the desert for rainfall.”

However, Gray said he and others at NUMEC “suspected that it was not weather data but, rather, it was the powering of apparatus for phone tapping,” adding, “but they never admitted that to us.”

Shapiro told the Tribune-Review that he extended nuclear battery technology to Israel for even more projects but declined to provide details on many, worried the projects likely are still classified.

Former NUMEC engineers Tom Haley of Washington Township and Tom Bullock of West Covina, Calif., confirmed the secrecy of some of the projects.

Some of these jobs fell into the category of “black” contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense, where the very existence of projects was classified and omitted from NUMEC's corporate records, Haley said.

For example, NUMEC produced batteries used for underwater devices, known as “Snap 25 Generators,” that could detect foreign ships sitting off the U.S. coast, Haley said.

An Oak Ridge National Laboratory report documented that NUMEC provided nuclear battery generators to the Navy in 1967 for “deep sea” use in Port Hueneme, Calif.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or via twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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