Dimona Nuclear Reactor’s Safety Is a Public Issue

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

For many years Israelis have been accustomed to hearing the reassuring message of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission that it was closely supervising the nuclear reactor in Dimona and there was no reason to worry about safety problems in that facility. Tuesday's report by Chaim Levinson about the defects that were discovered in the core of the reactor indicates that although there is no immediate problem, there is a need for critical thinking about the manner in which Israel’s nuclear establishment plans to deal with the findings of its inspections.

The famous Israeli talent for improvisation and the great skill of the scientists in Dimona have probably led to many activities that improved the safety of the reactor, but we should recall that there is an expiration date, and it’s impossible to rely on our ability to repair and upgrade without any time limit. This model is supposed to operate for 40 years, and that time period has long since passed. The expiration date is not arbitrary. It is related to the physical and technical components of the facilities. Although in the United States they recently reached the conclusion that there are reactors whose operation can be extended to 60 years, even that date is steadily approaching in Dimona. That is why Israel must deal already in the near future with the issue of ending the facility’s operation.

To date there have not been any mishaps in the world related to the durability of the core, and the mishaps that did occur were due to other causes. But if such a mishap should occur, there is a danger of a release of radioactive materials and great risk to the workers and the surrounding population. Considerations of environmental safety should not be subordinated to political or military considerations. The experts in the field must responsibly tell the decision makers when in their opinion the reactor’s activity must be stopped, if it begins to constitute a risk to its environment. At the same time, there must be a continuation of the activity of the radiation monitoring system.

The safety of the reactor’s core is only one aspect of the future planning of exploitation of nuclear energy in Israel for various uses. Recently published studies attest to various problems related to storing nuclear waste, and this aspect must also be solved – and the ability to inspect and monitor waste treatment must be improved. In addition, there should be an open public discussion of plans to build a nuclear facility for producing electricity in the Negev region. Although such a facility does not emit greenhouse gases, it will also present problems of radiation safety and treatment of radioactive waste. We must seriously consider whether these risks and the constant need to prevent them justify the construction of a new nuclear facility.

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