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Israel nuclear reactor defects spark secrecy dilemma

By AFP - Apr 28,2016 - Last updated at Apr 28,2016

This file photo taken on September 8, 2002, shows a partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev Desert (AFP photo)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Growing safety fears surrounding Israel's largest but ageing atomic research centre have provoked fresh questions over its future and a dilemma over the secrecy of the country's alleged nuclear arsenal.

Israel, believed to be the Middle East's sole nuclear power, has long refused to confirm or deny that it has such weapons.

The Haaretz newspaper reported on Tuesday that a study had uncovered 1,537 defects in the decades-old aluminium core of the Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev desert of southern Israel.

The defects at the centre, where nuclear weapons were allegedly developed, were not seen to be severe and the risk of a nuclear outbreak is very limited, the report said.

However, there are growing calls for new safeguards and even a new research centre — which could present the country with a decision on whether to acknowledge for the first time that it has nuclear weapons.

The US-based Institute for Science and International Security estimated in 2015 that Israel had 115 nuclear warheads.

At the same time Israel has strongly opposed other regional powers, most notably its archfoe Iran, obtaining nuclear weapons.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also one of the most vociferous critics of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that was implemented in January, leading to the lifting of international sanctions on Tehran.

Officially the Dimona centre focuses on research and energy provision.

But in the 1980s nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at the centre, alleged to a British newspaper that it was also used to create nuclear weapons.

He was later jailed for 18 years for the revelations.

'Waiting for disaster' 

The core of the Dimona reactor was provided by France in the late 1950s and went online a few years later.

Common practice is that such reactors are used for only 40 years, though this can be extended with modifications.

Uzi Even, a chemistry professor at Tel Aviv University who was involved in the creation of the reactor, is concerned about the safety of the site and has campaigned for a decade for it to be closed — "so far, to no avail".

He called for it to be shut off for security reasons. "This reactor is now one of the oldest still operating globally," he said.

Michal Rozin, a lawmaker with the left-wing Meretz Party, has called for a radical shakeup in policy in the light of the safety worries.

"The nuclear reactor has no supervision besides the body that runs it, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission," she wrote in a letter, seen by AFP, to the parliamentary foreign and defence committee.

"We don't need to wait for a disaster to make a change."

Israel's atomic energy agency said in a statement that the country had the "highest international standards" of security and safety, adding that many reactors can last for far longer than 40 years.

'Political matter' 

While a challenge, safely closing a nuclear reactor and opening a new one is far from impossible, Arthur Motta, chair of Nuclear Engineering at Pennsylvania State University, told AFP.

"Technically it is not a difficult problem," he said. "Nuclear energy is so dense, the volume of a reactor that provides a whole city with energy is just [the size of] a building."

"It is more a political matter."

And there are a number of political reasons why the site has remained open, not least the thousands of jobs at risk, Even said.

Building a new site could also see Israel pushed to officially declare its nuclear capabilities.

While Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons, officials do not formally confirm or deny the claims — a policy often dubbed deliberate ambiguity.

As such, the country has yet to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — which would require its sites to undergo regular inspection of its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Motta explained. The IAEA declined to comment.

"I don't think we have the capability to build a new reactor [alone]," Even said. "And no one will sell us a reactor before we sign the non-proliferation agreement."

Writing in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, investigative journalist and security specialist Yossi Melman called it a "strategic dilemma of the first order".

"If it were to sign the treaty [Israel] would be able to obtain nuclear reactors."

 

"But it would also have to declare and reveal what it has, nuclear-wise, and the monopoly it allegedly has on this in the Middle East."

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Comments

Israel cannot build a new nuclear reactor on its own without the help of other countris... this is a joke!

Israel is not one of those underdeveloped neighbours...

On 21 April in Tel Aviv, scientific evidence of Israel’s dinosaur called Dimona is made public; but from Jerusalem only silence over Israel’s Supreme Court’s failure to rule on or before April 21, regarding Mordechai Vanunu’s 8th appeal to end all human rights restrictions against him.

I met Vanunu in east Jerusalem in 2005 and became a reporter just because he told me:

"The French were responsible for the actual building of the Dimona. The Germans gave the money; they were feeling guilty for the Holocaust, and tried to pay their way out...

"Did you know that President Kennedy tried to stop Israel from building atomic weapons? In 1963, he forced Prime Minister Ben Guirion to admit the Dimona was not a textile plant, as the sign outside proclaimed, but a nuclear plant. The Prime Minister said, ‘The nuclear reactor is only for peace.’

"When Johnson became president, he made an agreement with Israel that two senators would come every year to inspect. Before the senators would visit, the Israelis would build a wall to block the underground elevators and stairways. From 1963 to ’69, the senators came, but they never knew about the wall that hid the rest of the Dimona from them.

"Nixon stopped the inspections and agreed to ignore the situation. As a result, Israel increased production. In 1986, there were over two hundred bombs. Today, they may have enough plutonium for ten bombs a year.

"The Israelis have 200 atomic weapons and they accuse the Palestinians and Muslims of terrorism. The Dimona has never been inspected and Israel has never signed the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty but all the Arab states have. When I worked there they only produced when the air was blowing towards Jordan ten miles away. No one knows what is happening now. The world needs to wake up and see the real terrorism is the occupation and the Palestinians have lived under that terror regime for 40 years..."

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