Gaps in Belgian nuclear export control

To halt the spread of nuclear technology, countries need to keep a close eye on the exports of sensitive goods. At a time where all eyes are on Iran however, manufacturers from Leuven and Mechelen have delivered advanced technological equipment to Israel without problem. The controlling agencies in Belgium and Flanders were unaware of this, while the American government sanctioned the actions.

Companies are not allowed to export just any product. They do not only need export permits for weapons, but also for “dual use” equipment – items that could potentially be used for military purposes.

“During the Cold War, the West controlled exports on certain technologies to prevent them getting into the hands of the Warsaw Pact. Back then, the CoCom was the responsible agency,” researcher Nils Duquet from the Flemish Peace Institute explains. “After the Iron Curtain came down, the Wassenaar Agreement installed a control regime to limit the spread of weaponry.”

Based on Wassenaar and other international control regimes such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which controls rocket technology, and the Australia Group (concerned with biological and chemical weapons), participating countries have created lists of products for which a company is required to obtain export permits.

The Epsi case shows the sensitivity of export controls: at the end of 2004, the company Epsi from Temse, Belgium, exported an isostatic press (used to assemble machinery) to Iran. The CIA judged that this press could be used to assemble nuclear weapons and tried to stop its delivery, but to no avail. The case sparked a heavy debate in the Belgian parliament. An investigation was opened by “Committee I” – appointed by the Belgian Senate to control the intelligence services. The day before the results were revealed, Koen Dassen quit his post as head of the Belgian State Security.

MO* discovered that at the same time the press was feasting on the Epsi-case, two other Belgian companies managed to export dual use technology without the required permits.

American agents in Mechelen

The branch of US-based Telogy International NV located at the Omega Business Park in Mechelen focused on recalibrating used measuring equipment. The company bought used devices and gave them a mechanical and electronic check-up, before renting them out or re-selling them. Among the company’s clients were big names like Thomson, Motorola, Siemens and Philips. Telogy International also restored measuring equipment for companies such as Alcatel, Barco and Imec. The company used to have around 30 employees.

Between 2003 and 2007, Telogy exported several oscilloscopes to Israel, including to companies active in the defence industry. Oscilloscopes are electronic measuring devices that analyse a signal and display it as a graph. Since Telogy is a US company, and since oscilloscopes could be used in the process of developing nuclear weapons, Telogy should have requested an export permit in the US – but didn’t.

Through an inspection at the US parent company of Telogy International NV, the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) caught wind of the matter. This bureau is responsible for controls on US exports of dual use goods, software and technology. Following the discovery, two American inspectors went to Mechelen to check the subsidiary’s records.

On March 9th 2010, Telogy came to a friendly settlement with the Bureau of Industry and Security. MO* managed to get a copy of the friendly settlement document. In the agreement, Telogy agrees to pay a fine of 340,000 Euros. A table of infringements is provided in the appendix, summarising 22 cases of oscilloscopes produced by Tektronix, Agilent and Lecroy exported to Israel. The value of the devices varies between 1,327 and 47,000 Euros.

Bankruptcy

The important issue is how this case was dealt with in Belgium. If a company wants to export dual use goods from Flanders, it needs to obtain an export permit from the Flemish regional authorities. For products related to nuclear technologies, it also needs to be cleared by Canvek, the federal advisory commission for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Minister-President Kris Peeters is responsible for these matters in the Flemish Region. According to his cabinet: “In 2010, the Agency for Control on Strategic Goods was informed via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the Belgian ambassador in Israel about the investigation carried out by the Bureau of Industry and Security. Consequently, the agency opened its own investigation on the oscilloscopes, and concluded that these did not require a special permit according to European regulations. This means that Telogy did not have to request a permit from the Flemish regional authorities. The Agency for Control on Strategic Goods did invite the company for a meeting on the matter. Telogy’s lawyer replied that the firm was going through a liquidation process and had suspended its activities, which is why this meeting did not take place. In May 2011, Telogy filed for bankruptcy.”

Finding the loophole

It is remarkable that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed the authorities of the Flemish Region about this case, but not Canvek – even though the latter is a federal commission, which includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a board member. Canvek has been created to avoid nuclear material, installations, technology or dual use goods being utilised in the development or production of nuclear weapons. Only with a positive response from Canvek, can the federal Ministry of Energy give Belgian companies the required export permit.

The fact that Canvek was not consulted shows that the information flows do not run optimally – a significant problem for institutions that need to provide effective control.

‘It is clear that Telogy used its Belgian subsidiary to circumvent US regulations’

“Telogy did not ask for authorisation from Canvek,” chairman Theo Van Rentergem states. “Since oscilloscopes have been removed from the lists, there was no need for a Flemish export license. But strictly speaking, Telogy should still have requested authorisation from Canvek – even though it would have been hard to argue that a firm should ask for authorisation on goods that have been taken off the international regulatory lists. In any case, oscilloscopes still require an export permit in the USA: it is clear that Telogy used its Belgian subsidiary to circumvent American regulations.”

Not a unique case

“It’s not the first time that a Belgian company has delivered measuring equipment to Israel,” according to Luc Barbé, the author of the ebook “Belgium and the bomb” (“België en de bom” in Dutch), which offers a detailed analysis of Belgian contributions to nuclear weapons around the world. “In the sixties, the firm Tracerlab exported measuring devices for the secret plutonium reactor of Dimona. It’s ironic to see that this was also a Mechelen-based subsidiary of a large American company, and it was also closed after a couple of years. This company offered a remarkably large contribution to Israel’s nuclear program.”

There’s the Plumbat-affair as well: according to researcher Elaine Davenport in 1967, the Mossad (Israeli secret service) managed to make 200 tonnes of Belgian uranium disappear from Union Minière – uranium that ended up being used to produce Israeli nuclear weapons. Barbé: “I find it surprising and worrying that there are still Belgian companies who export advanced technological equipment to Israel, which has not signed the non-proliferation treaty and which everybody knows possesses nuclear weapons.” Barbé considers the exports by Telogy to be a serious issue: “We’re talking about dual use technology, which will potentially end up being used in a nuclear programme. It’s not quite the same as salmonella showing up in a kebab restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Melchior Wathelet, the Secretary of State for Energy, and Minister-President Kris Peeters should open up the files on this case. We have a right to know exactly what is going on.”

Missing permits

JSR Micro NV, a subsidiary of the Japanese firm JSR, is located in Leuven and employs around 90 people. Among other things, it sells photoresists, a type of varnish mixed with a solvent which has a photosensitive component. “You can print patterns onto it with light, which make photoresists useful for producing memory chips,” CEO Bruno Roland explains. “These are ready-made solutions that have to be filtered very precisely. It is very advanced material in which we have invested a lot of knowhow.”

Photoresists are sold in bottles of one or four litres, with a price that varies between a couple of hundred and several thousand Euros per bottle. Roland: “Photoresists are produced for civil applications, but in theory you could use them for weapons – for example when producing circuit boards used in guiding missiles.”

According to the Bureau of Industry and Security, the US subsidiary JSR Micro Inc. in California exported photoresists 18 times to Israel between January 2004 and September 2005, without having the required permit. The export was organised through JSR Micro NV in Leuven.

JSR Micro Inc. reached a friendly settlement with the Bureau of Industry and Security, and agreed to pay 210,000 Euros. Roland: “After it came to our attention that JSR Micro NV was committing an offense according to US law, we took the initiative to regularise our Belgian export permits. We discovered a couple of deficiencies in our administration, and export permits that were missing. In some situations we didn’t judge that an export permit would have been necessary, since we were exporting to the Israeli IT sector.”

Canvek’s chairman Theo Van Rentergem states that JSR Micro NV’s photoresists are not covered by Belgian laws on exporting nuclear technology. “These goods are therefore not subjected to export control in Belgium.”

Efficiency

“The US is more efficient than Belgium,” according to researcher Nils Duquet of the Flemish Peace Institute. “Because of its global power, the US can really control how goods end up being used.” And the facts support this. A recent example was when Belgium stopped a batch of dual use goods on request of US customs services. These were artificial fibres and pressure gauges produced in the US and on their way to Iran. A delegation of US customs officials made a special trip to Antwerp to analyse with an expert of the Flemish Region whether these goods could be exported to Iran. In the end, the export was stopped.

“American sanctions are also more efficient,” Duquet states. “The fine received by Telogy of Mechelen was aimed at making the firm more responsible: a large part of it would not have to paid if the company respected the regulations on exports in the future. US companies can sometimes avoid paying a part of their fine by investing in internal control programmes. In the ideal case, Belgian companies should implement these more often as well, but it’s not an easy matter: the European dual use list is a 300-page labyrinth. Over the years, some products are taken off the list, while others are added. In theory, companies should constantly check whether they need export permits for their products, but this is not always evident for smaller companies.”

Duquet is convinced that the Flemish government is trying to make this matter easier by offering services through the Chambers of Commerce: “They try to reach and inform companies that need permits, but this task is complicated by the lack of lists for Belgian companies that produce dual use goods. We’re talking about firms in the chemical sector, or those that produce measuring equipment or develop data encryption. Most of the time, they do not need export permits for their products.”

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