The International Atomic Energy Agency held a comprehensive safety inspection of the Soreq Nuclear Research Institute two weeks ago and found the facility to be safe.
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This was the first time international nuclear safety experts had thoroughly examined the Soreq facility, covering its operational procedures, processing of waste, and safety and employee training.
The delegation, headed by James Lions of Integrated Nuclear Safety Assessment of Research Reactors, also included his Egyptian deputy and five independent experts from Argentina, France, Germany, Australia and Hungary. It spent a week studying the facility.
The delegation was invited to conduct a comprehensive examination of Soreq in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. But before it arrived, Israel made clear that the examination would deal only with safety, not security.
The Soreq facility is under IAEA supervision and is visited twice a year by IAEA supervisors, who ensure that the facility is being used for research rather than military purposes. But these visits do not include comprehensive examination of operational procedures, such as the institute's organizational structure or its emergency procedures.
The Israel Atomic Energy Commission is planning its own comprehensive safety examination at the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona. A representative of the Dimona center was therefore present at all stages of the Soreq inspection, despite the fact that Dimona - which, according to foreign reports, produces nuclear weapons - is not under IAEA supervision.
David Danieli, a senior official of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, told Haaretz, "The Soreq facility is under IAEA supervision and the Dimona facility isn't. This is a long-standing policy, recognized by the IAEA."
But Israel intends to implement the "lessons and results of the Soreq examination at Dimona," Danieli said. Commission officials are expected to carry out a comprehensive safety examination based on the model of the Soreq inspection.
Active since 1960, the Soreq institute is expected to be shut down at the end of the decade and replaced by a particle accelerator, which is already under construction.
Both Israeli nuclear facilities, in Soreq and Dimona, are relatively old, and scientists have called in for them to be shut down in the past. But Nir Hesneshfrong, director of research at Soreq, explained that age does not affect the reactor's performance, since the reactor is operated only one or two days a week.
Moreover, it is obvious from a visit to the facility's control center that the equipment has been updated, he said: Nothing is left of the original control room "except, perhaps, the workers."
Following the Fukushima disaster, equipment that detects earthquakes and immediately shuts down the reactor was installed. "We cannot afford a safety malfunction, certainly not in a state as small as Israel," said Meir Markowitz, head of licensing and safety at the IAEC. "The Fukushima disaster caused us to rethink and reexamine the issue of nuclear facilities' safety procedures."
The Dimona facility's safety procedures have been severely criticized by the courts in recent years, following a suit by 44 employees and the families of former employees who claimed they had developed cancer and other diseases due to overexposure to radiation.
IAEC officials insisted that the number of cancer cases among employees isn't higher than that among the general population. Nevertheless, a year and a half later, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a committee to recommend special compensation for employees who developed fatal diseases.