What Israel Is Digging Up Under Dimona’s Nuclear Reactor

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona under construction work, seen from a Planet Labs Inc. satellite photo, January 2020
Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona under construction work, seen from a Planet Labs Inc. satellite photo, January 2021Credit: AP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The only surprise about the satellite photos showing extensive construction at Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor is that they were only published now. The story began with photographs taken in early January by a Chinese commercial satellite, SuperView-1, which were later viewed by independent Princeton researchers known as the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

The pictures were published on February 18 by The Guardian’s Julian Borger; the veteran journalist wrote that the work at Dimona began either in late 2018 or early 2019.

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Last week, the American satellite company Planet Labs provided much higher-resolution images of the construction work. These photos made a big impact around the world when they were published by AP on Thursday. The party that commissioned these photos is the same one that asked the company to photograph a field west of Beit Shemesh that appears on civil aviation maps as a closed area.

According to foreign media reports, this is where the Kanaf 2 (Wing 2) air force base is located, and where Jericho surface-to-surface missiles, which can be armed with nuclear warheads, are stored.

Dozens of civilian satellites are floating in space, including satellites made by the Israeli company ImageSat. Then there are all the military satellites that are cruising around the Earth largely for spying, intelligence-gathering and eavesdropping.

In this endeavor, too, Israel has a significant presence with its Ofek satellites that have been operating for more than 30 years. So, presumably, satellites of both types have been filming the construction work at Dimona for some time. For some reason, these images only won the attention of the international media now, revving up the rumor mill.

The images show excavations as long as a soccer field and 20 meters, or four to five stories, deep underground. In 1986, nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu leaked to Britain’s Sunday Times that, alongside the main building topped with the dome over the core, and alongside the chimney for gas emissions, stand a series of buildings known as machon – institute. One of them, Institute 2, descends six stories below ground and contains production halls for fissile material, including plutonium extraction facilities.

Following his leaks to the media, on September 30, 1986, Vanunu was kidnapped in Rome by Mossad agents, who brought him by ship to Israel, where he was tried and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Since his release in 2004 he has been banned from leaving the country.

A satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona, Monday.Credit: ,AP
A partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in Israel's Negev Desert, September 2002. Credit: Thomas Coax / AFP

Seeping nuclear waste

In follow-up AP stories, the hypothesis was raised that the expansion at Dimona is for a new modern site for treating radioactive waste. “It’s a reasonable supposition,” says Prof. Uzi Even, an expert on Israel’s nuclear program who once worked at the reactor.

The reactor, also known as the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center, already has a large landfill for nuclear waste that’s maintained to the highest standard. In addition to serving the nuclear reactor, the landfill is used to store radioactive waste from all over the country, including waste (isotopes) from nuclear-medicine departments at hospitals.

For years, the radioactive waste was buried in metal barrels deep underground at the research center. In the ‘90s, concerns heightened that the barrels would become corroded and the waste would seep into the ground and cause pollution. This fear was supported by reports about signs of pollution at Israel’s famous Small Crater nearby.

This prompted then-Environment Minister Yossi Sarid and several Knesset committees to order an inspection, but the findings weren’t clear-cut. In any case, the directors of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission promised, and still promise today, that the reactor’s safety, including the preventing of polluting leaks, is their top priority. As with any sort of waste removal, the need to remove and bury radioactive waste keeps growing, necessitating more space. Prof. Even believes that this accounts for the construction at the reactor.

I tried to contact Zeev Snir, the commission’s director since 2014, through the Prime Minister’s Office, but Snir did not respond.

In 2005, Zvi Kamil, a founder of the Dimona reactor, told me that years earlier the metal barrels were replaced by glass containers that significantly reduced the risk of seepage and pollution. For 16 years Kamil, who died in 2010, headed the Committee for Nuclear Safety (composed of representatives from the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, the Environment Ministry and other officials).

Both the commission and the committee oversee the safety of the site at Dimona and the much smaller Soreq Nuclear Research Center near the coast south of Tel Aviv. Although the safety committee was established independent of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission so that the cat wouldn’t be guarding the cream, as it were, the bonds between the two are obvious and the atomic energy commission has always held greater influence.

Construction of the Dimona reactor began in 1958 and was finished in 1963, in accordance with a secret (and since revealed) decision by the French government. French companies did the construction work, similar to other reactors around the world.

Even though Israel maintained that the reactor was intended solely for research and “peaceful civilian purposes,” the international media soon reported that the purpose was military – the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

According to several reports, this is why Israel increased the reactor’s declared capacity from 24 megawatts to 50 megawatts (and as much as 75 megawatts, according to some foreign estimates). These reports, along with the information supplied by Vanunu, suggest that Israel used the reactor to produce plutonium bombs and bombs based on enriched uranium.

A 2004 photo of Mordechai Vanunu holding a copy of a story on him in Britain's Sunday Times that ran 18 years earlier. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

Vital maintenance

According to foreign reports, to make the bombs more powerful than the ones the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, in the ‘70s Israel acquired tritium (a hydrogen isotope) from South Africa. This was at the height of the military, scientific and nuclear cooperation with the apartheid regime.

Tritium has a half-life of 24 years and thus requires maintenance toward the end of this stretch. Based on all this information, nuclear experts, intelligence agencies, international research institutes and Vanunu estimated that Israel has 90 to 200 nuclear bombs, the world’s sixth-largest arsenal following the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, and ahead of India, Pakistan and North Korea.

It’s hard to imagine that the construction at the research center is to increase production. That would make no sense. If Israel indeed has one of the most sophisticated and modernized nuclear arsenals, as it is said to have, one more or less bomb wouldn’t affect its capability either way. Israel presumably could also shut the reactor without hurting its strategic and deterrent power.

Prof. Even believes this is precisely what should be done. But this isn’t likely to happen. The reactor at Dimona is a symbol of Israel’s strength and deterrent capability. Its closure would be perceived as akin to shaving off Samson’s locks. Moreover, since Israel hasn’t signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, no country would let it build a new reactor. Israel doesn’t have the capability to build a new reactor, so it’s vital for Israeli governments to continue maintaining and ensuring the safety of the Dimona reactor.

The average “shelf life” of heavy-water reactors à la the one in Dimona is from 40 years to 50 years at most. Similar reactors in the United States and France have already been shut down.

The Israel Atomic Energy Commission, which had been seriously pondering the issue of the aging reactor, found a solution from the world of anti-aging efforts. With the aid of French experts, the reactor’s life was extended by injecting materials that strengthen the core’s concrete casing, the reactor’s soft point.

At a 2004 seminar, officials from the commission said their solution would extend the reactor’s lifespan by at least 20 years. If that’s so, the reactor’s new expiration date will be the end of the decade, unless a new technological solution is found or, God forbid, the reactor is shut due to a major mishap.

Regarding the timing of the publishing of the photographs, there are two conflicting potential explanations. One is that the source was a leak from the Biden administration, which aims to signal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to get in the way when the White House is considering returning to the Iranian nuclear deal and lifting sanctions. The second, more likely explanation is that the timing was random.

Whatever the case, the publication of these images doesn’t serve Israel’s interests. Israel, three weeks before its third general election in two years, prefers to play down its reputation as a nuclear power, while the U.S. administration is trying to end Iran’s violations of the nuclear deal. If anything, these reports mainly provide Iran with ammunition for its repeated complaints: Why is the world picking on us? We don’t possess nuclear weapons, while everyone knows that Israel does.

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