The Secrecy-Shrouded Nuclear Reactor at Dimona — It Might Have to Close in 7 Years

[This article is based on an item written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books on Israeli defense, intelligence, and culture.]

A moment of truth for Israel’s nuclear policy is nearing. Haim Levinson’s article in Ha’aretz (in Hebrew on April 26) regarding the defects in the core of the nuclear reactor in Dimona only emphasizes this fact.

Such reactors are normally taken out of service after 40 years or so. Ultrasound examinations found 1,537 flaws in the metal core in Dimona, a scientist from the facility reported — according to Levinson in Ha’aretz.

These are not defects that can develop to the level of large cracks, that would at this stage cause nuclear radiation emission from the reactor and endanger the surrounding population and environment.

Israel Atomic Energy Commission logo pngThe awareness of these flaws — and the likelihood of how they would progress — were known since the inception of the nuclear reactor. In 2004 similar findings were revealed at a symposium at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, where senior officials of the Atomic Energy Commission, which is responsible for the reactor in Dimona, admitted that they were encountering difficulties in upgrading the safety of the reactor.

The reactor in Dimona — which France built for Israel — began to function in 1963. According to the manufacturer’s standards, the lifetime of reactors of this type is forty years.

At that convention 12 years ago, the CEO of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission — Gideon Frank — said that in the United States, techniques were developed that allowed for a 20-year extension of the lifetime of reactors.

However, the reactor core, which is made from metal and wrapped with a thick layer of concrete that defends against the tremendous radiation from within, cannot be replaced, as there is a leaking water heater there that cannot be fixed.

Today, the reactor in Dimona is 53 years old and has repeatedly received “anti-aging treatment.”

Israel used the most advanced techniques in the world, but they will be effective until when? If we rely on the words of Gideon Frank from the convention, then the reactor has another seven years to its life. By then there will be no alternative but to disable the reactor.

The technological problems create a huge dilemma for the longtime Israeli strategy of deterrence. The reactor that Israel acquired from France, had, according to foreign reports, a 24-megawatt capacity and was to be used for research purposes. According to these same sources Israel increased its output to 50 megawatts, possibly even more.

According to foreign reports, since its activation, Israel’s reactor has been manufacturing uranium and plutonium. Those are the fissile materials for the construction of nuclear weapons. These reports said that the proponents of Israeli nuclear development believed that nuclear weapons would serve as a deterrent and secure Israel’s existence for generations.

Concurrently, they also formulated the Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity, which neither admitted nor denied the existence of nuclear weapons.

In my opinion, the brilliance and boldness of the Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity proved and continues to prove itself strategically.

The success of this policy is evident in the fact that no superpower has demanded of Israel to disarm nuclear capacity, which the world claims Israel has.

However the policy of nuclear ambiguity also prevents Israel from signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which bans the production, stockpiling and spread of nuclear weapons.

This is the predicament in which Israel exists today. Israel does not possess the ability and the materials to build a new reactor and is in need of foreign or international assistance. If Israel were to sign the NPT it would be able to receive nuclear reactors for the purpose of research and generation of electricity, but it would also be mandated that Israel disclose everything it has.

The foreign reports indicated that during the years of its reactor’s operation, Israel constructed approximately 200 nuclear bombs of all types and sizes as well as the means to launch them, according to one report. According to another more recent report, Israel is in possession of “only” 80 bombs.

This substantial arsenal could continue to ensure Israel’s deterrence policy, even if the reactor were to close and could not manufacture additional bomb-making materials. But the gleaming dome of the reactor is also a symbol of Israel and its nuclear capability.

Israel will try to extend the lifespan of the reactor as much as possible before its inevitable expiration, when the efficacy of the “anti-aging” remedies will also expire.

May 8, 2016

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