THE PLUMBAT AFFAIR

In 1968, Euratom approved the purchase of uranium by Asmara Chemie, a West Germany chemical company, to buy uranium from the Belgian mineral company SGM, its shipment on the Scheersberg A to Genoa, Italy and its commercial processing by SAICA, an Italian paint company. In November, the Scheersburg set sail from Antwerp with 200 tonnes of uranium onboard. The sealed drums were labeled “plumbat” or lead. The Scheersberg, however, never showed up in Genoa; instead, the vessel arrived at the Turkish port of Iskenderum two weeks after she was due at Genoa, abandoned by the captain and crew and with the hull empty. Reportedly, the cargo had been transferred at sea to an Israeli ship, ultimately bound for Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor.

After the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, France ceased all supplies of uranium to Israel. While the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) had just been opened for signature, it did not enter in force until 1970. Euratom had controls on all of Europe’s uranium, but the decade-old organization was disorganized with member states disagreeing on a range of issues from reactor technologies and research funding to the pace of European integration. Euratom was also in the process of moving offices and files from Brussels to Luxembourg. It took Euratom upwards of 7 months to know for sure that the uranium had gone astray.

Ten years later, the affair became public in a book.