Agence France Presse July 18, 2004
Israel's Soreq nuclear reactor -- the one they show to journalists
By Michael Adler
Soreq is the nuclear facility Israel is willing to show journalists, unlike the Dimona reactor which is suspected of making plutonium for atomic bombs and is strictly off limits.
The centerpiece at Soreq, an elegant complex that has won architectural awards, is a five-megawatt reactor whose concrete outside looks like a huge upside-down white cup.
Inside, the small block of the reactor lies under nine metres (30 feet) of demineralized water, which is a pale blue that looks sparkling clean as it blocks gamma rays and other radiation to protect technicians and onlookers.
Soreq was donated to Israel by US president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 "as part of the Atoms for Peace program" to develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The Dimona reactor, which is in the Negev desert, was built with French help in the late 1950s, and is believed able to generate 40-150 megawatts of energy, much more than Soreq. It is thought to be where Israel makes the raw material for its atomic bombs.
Former technician Mordechai Vanunu was jailed for 18 years when he revealed the inner workings at Dimona and effectively blew the whistle on Israel's nuclear program.
"Soreq is active in applied research, making hi-tech products" such as radioactive materials used in medical diagnostic tests, Soreq's director Ehud Azoulay told journalists on a visit this month to the site, which is in the center of Israel, near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Azoulay deflected in advance questions about whether Soraq is used for nuclear weapons development by saying the research center is the only one "in the world that doesn't have a nuclear physics department."
But John Pike, of the US-based GlobalSecurity weapons monitoring organization, told AFP by telephone that Soreq is "the functional equivalent of the US Livermore or Los Alamos national weapons laboratories. It is responsible for nuclear weapons research, design and fabrication."
Israel maintains a position of "strategic ambiguity" about whether it has nuclear weapons, neither confirming nor denying questions about this.
Most foreign experts believe Israel possesses up to 200 nuclear warheads, however.
Israel developed its nuclear program starting in the 1950s when then prime minister David Ben-Gurion realized that "all oil shipments to Israel must go along 2,000 miles of unfriendly coast," scientist Yude Paiss said at Soreq.
Israel does not use nuclear energy to produce electricity, as it is cheaper to use oil and gas, but does do atomic research.
The public face of Soreq is one of a facility active in non-atomic-bomb projects, such as using solid-state physics to make night-viewing systems or developing one of the first nuclear cameras used is treating thyroid problems, Azoulay said.
Scientists at Soreq are even looking into how to identify suicide bombers with machines that will be able to see beneath outer garments.
Indeed, while the nuclear weapons issue is not up for discussion, Israel's quest for national security permeates much of what Soreq does.
There are the arms-related projects.
Scientists at Soreq have developed a laser for snipers that can measure cross-wind along the path to a target, to be used in parallel with a laser used to measure range to a target.
This can be a valuable "support for snipers in hostage-taking situations," Azoulay said.
Then, there is the regional situation.
Mark Goldberg, who works in Soreq's radiopharmaceutical division, proudly showed journalists a cyclotron, the outside of which is a big metal barrel with wires coming in and out, used to make radioisotopes for medical diagnosis.
Such radioisotopes have relatively short half-lives, which make them valuable only for local use, which in Soreq's case means the Israeli market although it could be much more.
"If we had peace, we could do quite a lot of business with our neighbors," he said, referring to countries like neighboring Syria.
He said "all of us would like to help at all levels."
"We know Damascus has acquired a cyclotron machine and is having trouble getting it to run. We would be glad to help them with this," Goldberg said.
But "setting up contacts with neighboring countries is not easy to do," he said about Israel's Arab neighbours, two of whom remain in a state of war with the Jewish state.
© Copyright 2004, Agence France Presse