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Concerns raised over UK export of nuclear weapon 'ingredient' to Ethiopia

Satellite view of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea

By Judith Duffy

The UK Government has been urged to provide assurances of “strict scrutiny” over the export of material which can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons to a country with defence links to North Korea.

Data shows that in January this year, the UK approved the export of £1,193 of deuterium compounds to Ethiopia under a licence granted by the government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

The material has uses ranging from the construction of nuclear reactors and the manufacture of medicinal drugs, to the production of nuclear weapons.

The information, collected by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), also shows the deuterium has been exported to Ethiopia under a “dual-use” licence as goods for both military and civilian purposes.

But SNP MP Stephen Gethins, a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has raised concerns over the transaction, pointing out there is no record of any nuclear power reactor in Ethiopia.

The country has also signed up to treaties banning the use and spread of nuclear weapons.

Gethins has written to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond pointing out Ethiopia’s “longstanding” defence relationship with North Korea, which has a “predilection for nuclear armament”.

He told the Sunday Herald: “I want reassurances from the UK Government that it is applying the strictest scrutiny on the sale of materials overseas that have potential to be used in any kind of nuclear proliferation.

“When it comes to these kinds of transactions, security and safety must be paramount and any Government activity must be absolutely transparent.”

The letter to Hammond, sent by Gethins last week, notes that two major uses of deuterium are in the construction of nuclear reactors and “in the creation of the fusion fuel needed to achieve thermonuclear capabilities”.

However, it states a worldwide database on nuclear power plants in operation or under construction, which is held by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has no record of a power reactor in Ethiopia. It goes on to highlight reports that Ethiopia has bought large quantities of North Korean arms and munitions since the 1980s.

The letter said: “Given Ethiopia has signed and ratified the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, what purpose could be had for acquiring nuclear material that has military


“With North Korea’s predilection for nuclear armament, Ethiopia having been found to have onsold deuterium would constitute a serious violation of international law.”

According to data collected by CAAT, around 86 licences for export of deuterium compounds have been issued over the past five years to countries including Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Angola, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Brazil, Norway and Ghana.

The material has also been exported to the United Arab Emirates, although some licences were refused in 2014 due to a “risk of diversion or re-export to undesirable users”.

Andrew Smith, spokesman for CAAT, said: “A lot of the components and equipment that the government licences for civilian purposes can also be used in the production of arms. If there is reason to suspect that equipment being sold to Ethiopia is reaching North Korea then it must be investigated straight away.”

A FCO spokesman said: “The UK has one of the most transparent and rigorous export control systems in the world. Each export licence application is carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.”

The London Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was asked to comment but did not respond.
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