Nuclear Research in Israel at Risk of Extinction, Report Warns

In 1980s there were 40 senior researchers in the field in Israel. Today there are only five, National Academy of Sciences report says.

A partial view of Israel's Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Negev desert.

Israeli academics are concerned that the field of nuclear physics could peter out over the next few years until it ceases to exist.

“In the absence of a halt to the downscaling trend, academic activity in the field of nuclear physics will disappear in a few years and it will be impossible to train students for higher degrees. This will have serious social and national implications, with a shortage in the number of researchers with appropriate knowledge in nuclear physics who could advise government,” says a report on the state of Israeli science in 2016, published by the National Academy of Sciences.

The report, written by a committee headed by Prof. Reshef Tenne, highlights the achievements and prominence of Israeli scientists in various fields. But it also cites weaknesses, with one of the key ones, the fate of nuclear research.

“In contrast to the situation around the world, this area is in continuing decline in Israel,” says the report. In the 1980s there were 40 senior academics pursuing this field of research in five higher education institutions. Today there are only five, at three institutions.

Academic nuclear physics research is one of the cornerstones of basic science and of understanding the forces operating in nature, both in theory and in applications. This field is defined by the report as crucial for a developed country. This doesn’t apply only to defense uses, the ones with which the field is most often associated.Nuclear medicine, nuclear energy production, industrial applications and archaeological and art dating are other uses for such knowledge.

“What has happened to this field is very painful,” Tenne told Haaretz. “Seventy years ago, the country’s founders understood the need for nuclear physics and nuclear engineering, and they built accordingly. There was true scientific activity and research considered ground-breaking. That has disappeared almost completely, partly due to a lack of infrastructure and experimental facilities. Today, researchers prefer other areas, such as optics.”

Leading countries in this field invest in infrastructure for nuclear physics research, including the development of novel facilities which will serve future researchers. In the United States, 200 groups are supported in universities and national laboratories across the country, and budgets are increasing.

In recent decades, basic research in nuclear physics has made major strides in the study of quarks and gluons, elementary particles which make up protons and neutrons. They are the primal matter which was created within microseconds of the Big Bang. Also underway is a search for a new physics, beyond the Standard Model.

Due to the dismal situation in Israel, the Academy of Sciences set up a committee, headed by Weizmann Institute Prof. Itzhak Tserruya, to address the problem. “Without such knowledge no one will be able to give advice about nuclear issues, in medicine or defense matters. Nuclear medicine is a great tool requiring skilled manpower and infrastructure,”says Tserruya.