Calls for a Nuclear All Clear

Experts are concerned about the safety of the Dimona reactor, which is already 40 years old. The Israel Atomic Energy Commission is aware of the issue and knows the old habits of secrecy must change.

For years, historians and analysts throughout the world have claimed that Israel has acquired nuclear weapons more as a result of the trauma of the Holocaust than as a strategic move intended to create a balance of power in the region and deter the Arab world.

Last week, for perhaps the first time in public, in front of an Israeli audience, this theory received some surprising reinforcement. During a day-long conference run by the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), which has been assigned overall responsibility for Israel's nuclear project. The conference was held at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in memory of Prof. Ze'ev (Venia) Hadari, who, motivated by the lessons of the Holocaust, was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of pursuing the nuclear option and one of the founding fathers of the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

One of the issues that particularly concerns the IAEC is the reactor's physical safety in light of its advanced age. A reactor of the type in Dimona is supposed to be shut down after 40 years. It is already more than 40 years old. But IAEC director general Gideon Frank said the United States authorities allow the lives of old reactors to be extended by another 20 years after they are overhauled and upgraded.

Using the U.S. situation as a model, the commission is planning to improve the Dimona reactor and extend its life span. To do this, Israel needs aid, guidance and advanced technology from abroad. Israel could have received those things from the International Atomic Energy Agency or from France, which manufactured the reactor, but is held back by its policy of ambiguity, according to which Israel does not officially acknowledge possession of nuclear weapons, and its continued refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Despite this, IAEC chief scientist Prof. Dov Schwartz said several experts had recently visited Israel. Nonetheless, the commission says hosting experts and exchanging ideas with them does not in itself indicate that there is a safety problem with the nuclear reactor. The talks with foreign experts were conducted primarily out of an intention to keep Israel to the highest international standards of reactor safety.

The conference also discussed another issue that has been affected by Israel's policy of ambiguity: the establishment of nuclear reactors to supply electricity. The last few years have seen an upsurge in the international recognition of nuclear energy as the most efficient means of supplying the increasing demands for electricity. Israel needs it, too.

`Cleaner, safer'

Yitzhak Gurvitz, director of Israel's Nuclear Research Center in the Negev where the Dimona reactor is located, called on the conference participants to renew efforts to create an electricity-producing reactor, because nuclear energy "pollutes less, and is cleaner and safer." In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel tried a few times to purchase an electricity-producing reactor from the U.S., Canada or France and place it in the Shabta area of the Negev, but the initiative was dragged down by intense international opposition. The site still exists and is still expected to house such a reactor in the future. But for now it's clear that as long as Israel doesn't sign the non-proliferation treaty, it will not be able to purchase a nuclear reactor or nuclear technology abroad. The Israeli atomic commission has no intention of recommending that the government change its position on the treaty.

Ze'ev Hadari, to whose memory the conference was dedicated, was born in 1916 in a small village near Lodz, Poland. He immigrated to Israel as a pioneer in 1935 and joined the Labor Battalion, an attempt to promote the development of the Jewish state through establishing a workers' commune. He worked at a potash factory at the Dead Sea and was one of the first people to join the Palmach strike force of the pre-state army, the Haganah. In 1942, when he was 26, Hadari was sent by the Haganah to Istanbul to make contact with Jewish communities in Europe and try to save them from the Nazis.

Hadari was also involved in a failed attempt at rescuing 1 million Hungarian Jews by making a deal with Adolf Eichmann, the senior SS official, to provide trucks in exchange for saving the Jews. Since then, Hadari struggled with his conscience over whether he could do more to save the Jews of Europe. "The two years he spent in Istanbul marked him with a tragic personal seal," said Hadari's son, Yuval Hadari. "It was a wound that didn't heal. These were the roots of his future actions."

Those actions are primarily related to Israel's nuclear initiative. After Ze'ev Hadari returned to Israel in 1944, he was sent to Marseilles, where he was one of the leaders of the Mossad's Aliyeh Bet operation, which organized illegal immigration of Jews from Europe to Palestine and purchased weapons. In the 1948 War of Independence, he served as a regular soldier and was wounded in his hand. After the war, Hadari told then-premier David Ben-Gurion that he intended to dedicate himself to what he thought would assure the existence of Israel: nuclear technology. To that end, Hadari began studying chemistry at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950, when he was 36. "Within four years, he went from having a certificate of completing yeshiva to earning a doctorate in chemistry, with honors," said Prof. Ze'ev Tzahor, one of the conference initiators.

International pressure

Between Hadari's return to Israel in 1955 through 1970, he was one of the central figures in establishing the Nuclear Research Center in the Negev - the Dimona reactor - and recruited young students, who were sent to learn physics, chemistry and engineering in France. Hadari was one of three people on the nuclear reactor's planning board, and in 1957 he returned to Paris to study more about "what is permitted and what is forbidden," said his son. From 1960 on, Hadari worked at the reactor and ran its chemistry and metallurgy laboratory. It was as though Israel's nuclear policy were cast in the image of Hadari and his colleagues: daring and audacious, visionary and cunning, and above all, secretive.

But these patterns of behavior, which bore fruit in the first decades of statehood, are no longer appropriate in the reactor's fifth decade. Israel's nuclear policy faces a series of challenges both at home and abroad. Iran is on the cusp of achieving nuclear weapons and threatens to undermine Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region and shake up its policy of deterrence. The international pressure on Israel to get rid of what foreign newspapers say are its nuclear weapons is increasing; just this month IAEA director general Mohammed ElBaradei suggested once again that Israel do so in an interview with an Australian newspaper.

The lessening of military threats against Israel - the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the drastic weakening of Syria's army and Libya's agreement to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction - raises the question of how necessary the nuclear option is for the assurance of Israel's existence.

From time to time people, including nuclear reactor workers, begin considering the aging reactor's safety, as well as related issues such as ecological damage and health difficulties for workers. Israel's atomic commission is aware of these issues and understands very well that the old habits of secrecy must be changed. It started with consent for the ElBaradei visit to Israel four months ago to be made public and the launching of a Web site for the IAEC. The conference was yet another expression of a new spirit; it's a rare move for top leaders in the atomic commission to hold a conference open to the public.

"Our pattern is to increase the normalization and exposure to the public in a supervised way wherever possible," said the commission's deputy director, Dr. Eli Levita. "We are not taking advantage [of the secrecy], and there is no attempt at a cover-up. We are trying to tell the public that we are attentive and subject to criticism and hold discussions wherever possible." Levita, a former researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and senior official in the Defense Ministry's foreign liaison department, came to the IAEC two years ago. He said that since Israel is a democratic country, the commission's policy is to be as transparent as possible without damaging essential state security interests. "Anything regarding the safety of the reactor, health issues and environmental issues is not censored," he said.

Levita said Israel's approach to its nuclear policy does not differ from that of other democratic countries and that there is a "lively public discussion" about the issue - a statement with which not everyone would agree. In any case, Israel is not like other countries. Unlike other democratic countries that do not possess nuclear weapons (excluding India), Israel has not signed the non-proliferation treaty and is therefore exempt from allowing IAEA inspectors to supervise the Dimona reactor. The absence of international supervision is a double-edged sword: It does serve Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity, but it also makes the attempts of Israel's atomic commission to overhaul the aging reactor and establish an electricity-producing reactor more difficult.