Opinion

Could a Chernobyl Disaster Happen in Israel?

Heavy haze over the Negev desert, near the city of Dimona, Israel.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The broadcast of the television series “Chernobyl” has again raised the question of whether such a disaster could happen in Israel. The standard answer, of course, is no.

After all, the output of the nuclear reactor that exploded in Russia is many times greater than the output of the Israeli reactor at Dimona (at least 30 times greater), and similarly the amount of nuclear waste it produces is proportional to the size of the reactor.

>> Read more: 'Chernobyl' reopens old wound for thousands of Israelis

The spread of nuclear waste in the environment nearby in the event of an accident or damage to the reactor would be a disaster that would last for decades – or even centuries. I would like to examine the disaster that occurred in what was then the Soviet Union in greater detail, in addition to the reasons that led to it and the implications that it has for us in Israel.

The initial cause of the reactor explosion was related to the beginning of the project and how it was planned. This type of reactor is unstable and should never have been built. The Soviet engineers knew this too, but they were kept quiet for reasons of “national security.”

That is why such reactors have not been built anywhere in the world – except for the former Soviet Union, where there are about 10 other similar reactors. National security was advanced at the expense of operating the reactor safely, and those who warned about that in the Soviet Union were severely punished.

From the series 'Chernobyl'
HBO

The Dimona reactor does not suffer from similar planning problems, but the facts surrounding its operation have been kept secret. In 2004, I heard the representatives of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission with my own ears provide a false report to the Knesset Science and Technology Committee – of which I was a member. In response to the reservations that I raised about it – from my experience operating the reactor – I was told that national security required it.

And in fact, twice I was invited for a meeting for clarifications – or implied threats – with two heads of the Atomic Energy Commission. At those meetings, I was warned not to pursue that direction, and the warnings worked on me.

It is true that the Dimona reactor is smaller than the one at Chernobyl, but it has been in operation and producing nuclear waste for almost 55 years, and all of that waste is collecting and accumulating at the reactor site. The amount of radioactive waste that has accumulated at Dimona is not very different than that dispersed in the Chernobyl disaster, which had been operational for only two years before it exploded. To accurately estimate the amount of waste at Dimona, we need to know the operating output of the reactor and how long it has been operating, but this – as I have said – is a state secret that is not to be discussed. As in the Soviet Union.

If there is no danger of an explosion like the one that occurred at Chernobyl, why am I concerned? Because we are surrounded by enemies who have developed sufficiently precise weapons to intentionally hit the reactor complex. It is impossible to rely on the prospect that their judgment would lead them to avoid wide-scale harm to civilians.

Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor, 2015.
Tomer Appelbaum

How is the nuclear waste stored at Dimona? How well protected is it against a massive airstrike? Again, that is a well-kept secret, as in the Soviet Union.

In the event of serious damage or an accident (due to the reactor’s age; it is the oldest nuclear reactor in the world that is still in operation), it would be necessary to evacuate the city of Dimona as well as the nearby Bedouin communities. That would involve the evacuation of more than 60,000 residents.

Think about it. Is the risk worth the benefit from the continued operation of the reactor? It appears to me that the balance is no longer clear today.

Uzi Even is a chemistry professor and was one of the founders of the Dimona reactor.