Israel and the United States signed an agreement several days ago to step up cooperation in the field of nuclear safety.

The new agreement broadens and upgrades previous accords between the two countries in this field, which were signed over the past two decades. It will enable the Israel Atomic Energy Commission to access most of the latest nuclear safety data, procedures and technology available in the U.S.

The agreement was signed by the director of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Shaul Horev, and the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Dr. Dale Klein.

Horev also met in the U.S. with his American counterpart, Thomas D'Agostino, who is the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Even though the agreement is essentially technical in nature, it has much greater significance, as many countries, including the U.S., are inclined not to cooperate with Israel on any aspects related to the nuclear field, because Israel is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, the U.S. has agreements on nuclear safety with Israel. Moreover, Israel also has an agreement for limited cooperation on matters of nuclear safety with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and has adopted the stringent standards and safety procedures of the Vienna-based organization.

In recent years Israel has tried to improve and broaden its ties in the nuclear field with as many countries and organizations as possible. This was done in an effort to breach its isolation in this field, but also because of the need for foreign assistance to help ensure safety at the nuclear research compound in Dimona, as well as monitor nuclear waste at the site.

The Dimona reactor - which foreign reports say is used by Israel to develop nuclear arms - was established nearly five decades ago, and is considered relatively old. Experts in the field have expressed concern that safety mishaps could occur there, since it is not under international supervision, due to the classified activities there.

However, Israel has argued that the reactor has been upgraded in recent years and that safety there meets the highest international standards.

The Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) stressed that old reactors in the U.S. underwent similar upgrades and were issued licenses to continue operations for decades more. The IAEC is responsible for operating the Dimona reactor and also for monitoring safety there. The monitoring is done in cooperation with an inter-ministerial body, the Committee for Nuclear Safety.

In recent years, some of the senior members of the IAEC have called for a nuclear reactor here to produce electricity, thus limiting the dependence on imported petroleum and preparing for the forecast shortage in oil reserves.

However, Israel is expected to meet with opposition from abroad to an electricity-producing reactor because of its refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. One of the options raised was to seek an agreement with the U.S. that will allow the transfer of technology for the construction of such a reactor. The U.S. was on the verge of recently signing a similar agreement with India, a country also not a signatory of the NPT, but due to domestic political opposition, an agreement faltered.