Fukushima - AP - 16.03.2011
The damaged No. 4 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Japan. Photo by AP
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The unfolding crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor has caused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rethink a decision to set up a nuclear power plant in the Negev, which he had made just a few months ago. He announced the turnabout in an interview with CNN that aired yesterday.

"It certainly caused me to reconsider the projects of building civil nuclear power plants," he said, referring to the situation in Japan. "I have to tell you, I was a lot more enthusiastic about it than I am now."

Netanyahu said it would take "a very good argument" to convince him to go ahead with the project now, adding, "fortunately, we've found natural gas," rendering the need for nuclear energy less urgent.

"I don't think we're going to pursue civil nuclear energy in the coming years," the prime minister concluded.

The crisis in Japan has also led the Knesset to demand answers about the risks entailed in Israel's nuclear facilities, which are normally kept under a tight shroud of secrecy. The Interior and Environment Committee will discuss the issue in the coming weeks, in response to a motion by MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ) that the plenum approved on Wednesday.

Israel's main nuclear facility is the reactor in Dimona, which, Khenin noted, is older than Japan's Fukushima plant. It is also only about 30 kilometers from the Syrian-African rift, a well-known earthquake zone.

"The scientific community has made a serious claim that the reactor is outdated and dangerous and should be closed," Khenin said. "I'm familiar with the standard response - that the reactor has been upgraded - but this response raises very difficult questions, because this upgrade, which replaced the shielding around the nuclear core, is a complex operation that requires special technology."

Because Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has no access to international nuclear technology or expertise, Khenin noted, adding that this intensifies questions about the quality of the upgrade.

In addition to the Dimona reactor, Israel has a research reactor at Nahal Sorek. That reactor, unlike the one in Dimona, is open to civilian inspection - but it, too, is several decades old.

Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, who replied to Khenin on the government's behalf, said the Dimona reactor's output is only a few dozen megawatts, compared to thousands of megawatts at Japan's reactors - which, unlike Dimona, are used to produce electricity. Thus the damage Dimona could possibly do is much less. Begin also said it is supervised by a special safety committee that includes public representatives.

Also yesterday, the Foreign Ministry stepped up its travel advisory to Japan, urging Israelis not to travel there until further notice. It also urged Israelis already in Tokyo to leave the city for points south, "and even to consider leaving the country." Those who decide to stay, the ministry added, should stay in touch with the embassy in Tokyo.

There is currently no plan to evacuate the four remaining diplomats at Israel's Tokyo embassy.