Israeli Nuclear Scientists Strike, Halt Sensitive Work; Cabinet to Order Them Back

The move comes after physicists and chemists operating the Dimona Nuclear reactor started a slowdown 6 months ago over new contract

A partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the Negev desert.
A partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the Negev desert. Thomas Coex/AFP

In an exceptional move, the cabinet is expected to approve new emergency regulations on Sunday, allowing a court to order scientists currently on a slowdown strike at the Dimona Nuclear Research Center back to work.

Scientists at Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona and the Soreq Nuclear Center went on a slowdown last February as part of their bartering for a new collective labor agreement, which would give them a substantial wage increase.

The strike was initiated by defense establishment physicists and chemists who operate the facility, and who function separately from the engineers' union. As part of the slowdown, the scientists are delaying new development plans, have stopped issuing safety licenses for the reactors and have even halted operating a vital and sensitive part of the installation.

In light of these developments, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to take an exceptional step and pass new emergency regulations which would allow the court to issue a back-to-work order. According to the new regulations, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission and the directors of the reactors will be allowed to order scientists to report to work and perform essential tasks. If they fail to do so, they can be dismissed or have their salaries docked. Employees will not be allowed to resign as long as these orders are in place.

Explanatory notes to the regulations that will be brought before the cabinet state that “these orders will be issued sparingly and proportionately in order to prevent harming the state’s interests.” The legal counsel at the Prime Minister’s Office, Shlomit Barnea Farago, noted that “using these regulations in a labor dispute in vital areas is a drastic step but in view of concerns about serious damage to vital state interests it is reasonable to take emergency measures.”

In a letter sent to the cabinet, the head of the scientists' committee asked the ministers to refrain from issuing the back-to-work order, which he described as unnecessary and disproportionate.

“These steps are urgent,” wrote the official. “The institutions we serve do not supply essential services; the only immediate aspect of uninterrupted work relates to the safety of the installations and this is fully addressed by our scientists. Over the months we’ve been on partial strike, the researchers have responded to several requests by the state and allowed operations when they were deemed essential. The present move is demeaning and unnecessary. There is no agency more responsible for the safety of these installations than our scientists.”

He noted that the organization has been waiting for 8 years for a new collective contract and that scientists have only embarked on protest moves in the last six months.