Israel Wants to Keep Aging Dimona Nuclear Reactor Operating Until 2040, When It Will Be 80

At this point, the Dimona nuclear reactor will be 80 years old. Similar designs in France were closed many years ago

General view of the Israeli nuclear facility in the Negev Dest outside Dimona seen in this August 6, 2000 file photo. I
REUTERS

The Israeli government has officially said it plans to extend the operating life of the nuclear reactor at Dimona through 2040, when the facility will be 80 years old.

In a response to a parliamentary question, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin – who also serves as the cabinet’s liaison with the Knesset – said last week that unlike previous views which set an arbitrary lifespan for such reactors, scientists today have accumulated enough experience and knowledge to extend the life of the reactor. 

Innovative and strict examinations of the reactor ensure its safety, said Levin, who is also a Likud lawmaker.  

The reactor, located in the Negev desert in southern Israel, was built with French assistance at the end of the 1950s and first began operating at the end of 1963. The facility was based on a model of reactors designed to produce electricity for 40 years. 

Two French reactors that were built around the same time were shuttered in 1980, and the oldest French reactor currently in operation was built in 1977. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, three reactors built in the 1970s – in Sweden, South Korea and Spain – were closed over the last year.

In April 2016, Haaretz reported that an ultrasound examination showed signs of 1,537 defects at the aging aluminum core of the Dimona nuclear reactor, stressing its age.

Following the report, MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union) submitted a parliamentary question to the Prime Minister’s Office about the condition of the nuclear reactor, asking how long it planned to keep the reactor running. It took 18 months before she received an official response from Levin. She has maintained her questioning in recent months.

Two months ago, Levin announced that no date had been set for the closure of the Dimona reactor, admitting the government wanted to keep it running as long as possible. Unwilling to leave matters there, Cohen Paran then asked whether it was not the case that nuclear reactor cores functioned for only 40 years in other countries, and inquired why the Dimona reactor did not have a maximum lifespan.

Levin replied again last week, providing further details. Regarding the defects, Levin said that the Haaretz “news report was based on a journalist’s misunderstanding of a professional report presented at a conference of the Israel Nuclear Society, and on a misleading representation of the results of that study.

“The study focused on a method developed in Dimona by scientists working there, intended to more thoroughly examine the reactor’s operations,” Levin wrote. “During this examination – which used these new methods – some new findings emerged that do not constitute defects or point to a problem that could endanger the reactor. Instead, the new method produced results that could not be seen using previously used technology. The study actually demonstrated the responsibility and professionalism of the Atomic Energy Commission with regard to maintaining the safety of its installation.”

Regarding the reactor’s age, Levin wrote: “The determination that there is an ironclad, maximal age of 40 years for the operation of a reactor is untrue, having no basis in reality. In the distant past, it was determined that licenses would be initially restricted to 40 years, due to a lack of experience in long-term operation of such reactors. However, as experience accumulated and following a thorough examination, it was decided to extend operations on an individual basis.

“There are now nuclear power stations around the world with licenses to operate for 60 years, and the intention is to extend this to 80 years. For example, 84 out of 99 reactors in the United States were given a 20-year extension beyond the original 40 years, with the option of granting further extensions later. Such extensions are given on the basis of meticulous examination. 

“One can’t compare one reactor to another, and those reactors are used in power stations with a yield that is orders of magnitude higher than that of the Dimona reactor. Israel is working to extend the life of this reactor up to 80 years, as is being done in other countries,” wrote Levin.

Former MK Uzi Even (Meretz), a professor emeritus of physical chemistry at Tel Aviv University and one of the founders of the Dimona reactor, told Haaretz the work of the commission supervising the safety of the reactor’s operations was not transparent. Extending the life of the reactor would require a large investment of resources and money, including replacing aging equipment, he said.

Even said Levin’s statement that Israel’s reactor produces much less power than comparable nuclear power plants around the world is true but the power density is high, similar to a nuclear power plant – and possibly even higher, because the Dimona reactor is smaller. “As a result, the cumulative radiation damage to the reactor is severe, like in power plants, or even more, so there is no basis to the claim that the reactor is safer from the radiation damage that appears in other power plants,” he said. 

“The Dimona reactor is the oldest of its type in the world,” Even continued. “It has operated since 1963 – almost 55 years. Over 150 reactors of its age, or younger, have already been closed around the world because of safety fears or because of accidents in their operation. Does the minister know these facts?” Even asked.

Extending the lifespan of the reactor would also require preserving organizational knowledge about the reactor – because of a shortage of reactor engineers in Israel, and also because the knowledge received when the reactor was built was no longer adequate, Even added.