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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Negev Nuclear Research Center
Kirya le-Mechkar Garinii (KAMAG)

Dimona Reactor Dome The Dimona heavy water reactor and an installation for processing irradiated fuel are used to produce weapons-grade nuclear material. Approximately 2,700 scientists, technicians, administrative staff, and other workers are employed at Dimona. Since the facility was constructed in the late 1950's the surrounding land has been altered to sustain groves of palms and gardens positioned to obscure the facility from the road and air.

Begining around 1958 with French assistance, Israel constructed a natural uranium, heavy-water, research reactor at Dimona in the Negev Desert, about 8.5 miles from the town of the same name and some 25 miles from the Jordanian border. The Dimona facility was constructed in secret and is not under international inspection safeguards. The facility was first noticed by American intelligence when U-2 spyplanes overflew Dimona in 1958. It was not conclusively identified as a nuclear site until two years later.

The list of nations that secretly sold Israel the material and expertise to make nuclear warheads, or who turned a blind eye to its theft, include today's staunchest campaigners against proliferation: the US, France, Germany, Britain and even Norway. Experts, however, say Israel's nuclear-weapons project could never have got off the ground without an enormous contribution from France. Paris that took the toughest line on counter-proliferation when it came to Iran's peaceful nuclear program helped lay the foundations of Israel's atomic weapons.

"In Dimona, French engineers poured in to help build Israel a nuclear reactor and a far more secret reprocessing plant capable of separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel," the Guardian wrote in 2014. According to the British paper, there were 2,500 French citizens living in Dimona by the end of the 50s, transforming it from a village to a cosmopolitan town. "French workers at Dimona were forbidden to write directly to relatives and friends in France and elsewhere, but sent mail to a phony post-office box in Latin America," the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in his book The Samson Option.

This reactor, nominally rated at 26 megawatts thermal, was put on line in early 1964. However according to Pierre Pean, French officials were surprised to discover that the cooling circuits designed to support three times the nominal power level, which permitted a scale-up to 70MWt without the addition of extra cooling circuits. If true, the power level of the reactor was reportedly 70MWt from the outset. Perhaps the power level has been increased to 150MWt some time after 1976, according to Barnaby.

An installation for processing irradiated fuel was completed with French assistance in the mid-1960s. Between 15 and 40-60 kilograms of fissionable plutonium can be processed annually. This facility probably has the capacity to produce plutonium for five to ten nuclear warheads a year.

In 1986, descriptions and photographs provided by the Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu were published in the London Sunday Times of the Dimona facility. This information supported the conclusion that Israel had a stockpile of 100 to 200 nuclear devices, a significantly larger nuclear capability than previously estimated.

Dimona consists of nine of these blocks called machons (in Hebrew facility or institute).

  • Machon 1 - The large silver-domed reactor containment vessel, nearly 20 meters [about 60 feet] in diameter, is visible from a nearby highway. Uranium fuel rods remain in the reactor for a few months before being discharged for reprocessing. The heavy water used as a moderator is cooled by ordinary water through a heat exchanger, which reportedly results in steam sometimes visible from the outside. Reports of annual production of as much as 60-kg of plutonium suggest that the reactor power level has been upgraded to 120-150 megawatts, much higher than the original power of 26 megawatts. Tritium can be produced by irradiating lithium-6 targets in the reactor. The reactor is four decades old, and may be reaching the end of its practical lifetime.
  • Machon 2 - Of the 2,700 employees at Dimona, it is said that only 150 are permitted access to Machon 2, which reportedly extends six floors underground. The chemical reprocessing plant removes plutonium produced in the reactor from the spent uranium rods. Before reprocessing begins, the rods are stored in water filled tanks for several weeks while the short-halflife radio-isotopes decay. The residual uranium is reprocessed to be used in new fuel rods. The facility also separates lithium-6 from natural lithium for use in thermonuclear weapons. According to Vanunu, the average weekly production is 1.2 kilograms of pure plutonium, enough for 4-12 nuclear weapons per year.
  • Machon 3 - The facility includes processing of natural uranium for the reactor, and conversion of lithium 6 into a solid for use in thermo-nuclear warheads.
  • Machon 4 - This facility is dedicated to the treatment of radioactive waste products. It includes a waste treatment plant and high-level waste storage. Low-level waste is mixed with tar, taken out in cans and buried nearby.
  • Machon 5 - Uranium from Machon 3 is made into rods coated in aluminum to be sent to the reactor.
  • Machon 6 - Supply of services to other Machons, including electricity, steam and specialized chemicals (nitrogen etc). It also hosts emergency electrical generators.
  • Machon 7 - Unknown - may no longer exist.
  • Machon 8 - Large laboratory for testing purity of samples from Machon 2, experiments on new processes. A secret unit (Unit 840) has been making enriched uranium since 1979-80 on a production scale. This may consist of a gas centifuge faclity for the production of enriched uranium.
  • Machon 9 - A laser isotope separation facility can be used to enrich uranium and to increase the proportion of isotope plutonium-239 in plutonium.
  • Machon 10 - Depleted uranium made into tips of shells for Israeli use and for export to Switzerland.

Israel may have developed a nuclear weapons capability incorporating enriched uranium. Up to 100 kilograms of enriched uranium missing from a facility at Apollo, Pennsylvania, are believed to have been taken to Israel, although other reports suggest that much of the material was recovered from the floors and ventilation ducts of the plant when it was decommissioned. In 1968, 200 tons of uranium ore disappeared from a ship in the Mediterranean Sea and probably diverted to Israel.

Plutonium production reactors which are both cooled and moderated by heavy water [like the Israeli reactor at Dimona] require about 0.75 tons of heavy water per thermal megawatt, and lose about 0.5 % of this heavy water each year.

"Dimona needed about 18t of heavy water to start operation.... France very likely agreed to supply Dimona's heavy water along with the reactor.... From 1959 to 1963 Israel imported 20t from Norway and 3.9t from the United States. This would supply Dimona indefinitely if the reactor stayed at its rated power of 24 megawatts.... For the reactor to produce the 40 kilograms of plutonium per year described by Vanunu, it would have had to be scaled up to more than 100 megawatts.... If the amount of coolant were quadrupled, which could allow quadrupled power, Dimona would need about 36t of heavy water - 12t of moderator and 24t of coolant. The 36t is slightly less than the total that Israel could have received from Norway, the United States, and France." HEAVY WATER CHEATERS by Gary Milhollin Foreign Policy Winter 1987-1988, p. 100-119.

In June 2019 managers of the Israeli Dimona nuclear reactor admitted that there has been leakage of radioactive materials from the plant in recent years. The leak was revealed after Freedi Tawil, a former employee in the plant, sued Dimona to get paid in recompense for getting cancer. Back in April 2016, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the nearly 53 year-old aluminum core at the nuclear facility had more than 1,500 defects.

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Page last modified: 01-10-2020 17:32:26 ZULU