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.
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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 arch-foe 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.
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.