Time to Discuss Nuclear Hazards

Mordechai Vanunu's release from prison provides an opportunity to discuss more than his personality traits and his criticism of Israel: it could be used to stimulate discussion of the safety and environmental aspects of Israel's nuclear program.

Mordechai Vanunu's release from prison provides an opportunity to discuss more than his personality traits and his criticism of Israel: it could be used to stimulate discussion of the safety and environmental aspects of Israel's nuclear program. Vanunu, however, has vanished from the public arena, and with him the public discussion of nuclear issues.

Israel's security establishment is undoubtedly pleased by the fact that it is once again being left alone so that it can conduct its affairs with the same secret routine to which it is accustomed. However, the environmental dangers connected to nuclear activity, and the lack of knowledge and disclosure concerning what happens at facilities run by the Atomic Energy Commission, must spur the public to demand the disclosure of more information.

A major environmental and safety danger posed by the nuclear program is leakage of radioactive materials, or a malfunction in waste disposal systems. In Israel's case, there is apparently just one facility, in Dimona, which receives all radioactive waste materials generated in the country. This includes large amounts of materials produced for civilian use, in spheres such as medicine and industry.

This waste storage facility is thought (according to reports published abroad) to include all toxic radioactive materials that pose considerable safety and health hazards. The most such hazardous material is plutonium, whose half-life is thousands of years.

Members of the Atomic Energy Commission have reiterated that radioactive materials are stored in a safe facility. Last year they even presented a photograph of a radioactive waste storage facility located in the reactor compound at Dimona.

Yet no outside expert knows the precise location of this storage facility in the Dimona reactor compound. There is no information about the way the materials are stored, and about safety measures undertaken to prevent the leakage of hazardous, radioactive materials to land and water sources. The types of geological and ecological tests undertaken to ensure that the present waste storage facility is acceptable remain unclear. Furthermore, the public does not know whether Israel has stored waste materials at other sites, as happened in other countries which have nuclear installations, particularly during the first years in which the installation began operating.

Israel uses nuclear equipment which was purchased in other countries, and relies on safety and environmental standards enforced by other countries, particularly the U.S. and European states. When uncertainty and doubt concerning the care given to nuclear waste disposal in these other countries is taken into consideration, there is cause for worry.

A senior official in Britain who monitors nuclear facilities in his country and who recently visited Israel spoke skeptically about waste disposal methods used around the world: "We are supposed to monitor, but we don't have a clue as to what we are going to do with the waste."

Officials in Britain and the U.S. scratch their heads as they try to figure out what to do with radioactive waste in the long term. These are materials which remain toxic and radioactive for thousands of years and, as things stand today, no procedure has been invented to eliminate the hazard they pose.

The safest system is to put the waste inside steel containers and store them deep underground, in areas which are supposed to be insulated against forms of soil erosion and pollution. The experience in the U.S., however, suggests that finding the ideal site for such long-term underground storage is no mean feat. Some American officials believed that they had found the right such spot in Nevada. But arguments have ensued about whether storage in this site will definitively eliminate hazards over a period of many years.

Citizens in Britain and the U.S., however, have access to information about waste disposal sites and methods of storage, and there is debate in these countries about environmental risks and ways to minimize them. In Israel, such discussions are not conducted in public. The public is not allowed to know what is being done to ensure its safety. Even if one accepts the claim that Israel cannot agree to full disclosure of its nuclear activity because of security concerns, the current situation in which there is no basic information about environmental risks posed by factors such as radioactive waste is still untenable.

The security establishment must find ways to provide access to information about methods used for nuclear waste disposal and steps taken to prevent environmental disasters to experts who represent the public, and not just to a monitoring committee that operates within the establishment itself.