Dimona Nuclear Reactor: 10 Years Past Its Projected Lifespan With No Plans to Be Shut Down

Israel admits for the first time that it has no plans to shut down the 50-year-old reactor. Members of the regulatory panel claim the projection was inaccurate

The Dimona nuclear reactor, 2009.
AFP/Thomas Coex

For the first time, the government admitted that although the nuclear reactor in Dimona is more than half a century old, it has set no deadline by which it must be shut down.

In April 2016, Haaretz reported that an inspection of the reactor performed with ultrasound technology had found 1,567 flaws in the metal of the reactor’s core. These flaws are being monitored to make sure that they are not growing. In response to the Haaretz report, lawmaker Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union) submitted a parliamentary question to the government asking how long it planned to keep the reactor in operation. It was only a year and a half later that she finally received a response from Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who also serves as the cabinet’s liaison with the Knesset.

Levin’s response said, “No maximum time has been set for the reactor’s operation, and its continued operation is subject to its meeting clear, strict, professional safety criteria.”

This is the first time the government has admitted that it intends to keep the reactor operating as long as possible.

The Dimona reactor, which was given to Israel by France in the late 1950s, is a model that was meant to last 40 years. Two French reactors of this type that were built at around the same time were closed in 1980; the oldest active reactor in France today went online only in 1977. In the United States, there is one small reactor in Texas that dates from 1969 and is slated to close in 2019.

The Dimona reactor’s continued operation and safety is a thorny issue for Israel because the country cannot afford, either diplomatically or financially, to build a new reactor to replace it. The Israel Atomic Energy Commission therefore invests enormous resources in maintaining the current reactor.

According to documents released by WikiLeaks, Israel told U.S. officials that it had replaced all the reactor’s systems except the metal core, which, being encased in concrete, cannot be replaced.

Members of the atomic energy commission said that, though it had long been assumed that reactors had a fixed lifespan, this has no scientific basis, and with proper care, a reactor’s use can be safely extended long beyond the 40 years that were once seen as the limit. The reactor’s continued operation has advantages for Israel, it added, and there’s no need to worry about its safety.

As for the reactor’s flaws, members of the commission said there was no way of knowing when they had developed, as they had been monitored only since 2007. They may have existed since the reactor was first established rather than developing as a result of the intense heat created by nuclear fission.

They also said the commission's monitoring of the flaws is not evidence of danger the reactor poses, but rather of the commission’s strict approach to safety, which mandates monitoring even the tiniest issue that could create safety problems.

Levin’s response to Cohen Paran also addressed the reactor’s flaws. “An ultrasound inspection of the reactor, which has been misinterpreted, was part of the strict maintenance regimen,” he wrote. “This inspection didn’t indicate any problems in the reactor that require its operation be halted.”