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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Negev Nuclear Research Center
Kirya le-Mehekar Gariny (KAMAG)

Imagery Analysis Report

With the worlds attention focused on the ongoing WMD hunt in Iraq, and the nuclear black market network between North Korea, Pakistan, Libya and Iran, a reexamination of Israel's nuclear program might provide insights into the frailty of the International Nuclear Control Regime. Israel has for years successfully skirted international nuclear safeguards and has come to develop a robust nuclear capability and the weapon systems nessary to hold at risk most of the countries in the Middle East. The Negev Nuclear Research Center, located about 10 kilometers southeast of Dimona, is at the heart of the Israeli nuclear program. Much of what is known about Dimona comes from Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear whistleblower, who is due to finish his 18-year jail sentence for revealing what he knew about Dimona. Israel has yet to be determined whether he will continue to be under some sort of incarceration or house arrest or will be released now that his sentance is nearly complete.

There has been an ongoing debate in Israel over nuclear weapons policy, prompted by the June 2000 publication in Hebrew in Israel of Avner Cohen's book Israel and the Bomb. Israel is by now the only nuclear weapons state that does not acknowledge the fact that it possesses nuclear weapons.

The most significant finding derived from satellite imagery is that Israel's nuclear weapons stockpile probably consists of between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons. Some previously published estimates had suggested that Israel might possess as many as 400 nuclear weapons.

The Dimona nuclear reactor, in operation since early 1965, is the source of plutonium for Israeli nuclear weapons. The number of nuclear weapons that could have been produced by Israel can be estimated on the basis of the power level of this reactor. Information made public in 1986 by Mordechai Vanunu, Frank Barnaby and other analysts suggested that the reactor might have a power level of at least 150 megawatts, about twice the power level at which is was believed to be operating around 1970. To accommodate this higher power level, analysts had suggested that Israel had constructed an enlarged cooling system.

An alternative interpretation of the information supplied by Vanunu was that the reactor's power level had remained at about 70 megawatts, as French sources had maintain (e.g. Pierre Pean), and that the production rate of plutonium in the early 1980s reflected a backlog of previously generated material.

The cooling towers associated with the Dimona reactor are clearly visible and identifiable in satellite imagery. Comparison of IKONOS imagery acquired in July 2000 with declassified American CORONA reconnaissance satellite imagery taken in the 1960's indicates that no new cooling towers were constructed in the years between 1971 and 2000. This suggests that the reactor's power level has probably not been increased significantly during this period. This evidence is not conclusive, however, since some modifications to the cooling towers which could increase their thermal efficiency might not be apparent in this imagery. Based on plausible upper and lower bounds of the operating practices at the reactor, Israel could have thus produced enough plutonium for at least 100 nuclear weapons, but probably not significantly more than 200 weapons.

The new satellite imagery also provides insights into other aspects of Israel's nuclear weapons capabilities. Israel could also use highly enriched uranium to build nuclear weapons, or to increase the yield of nuclear weapons using plutonium. Published reports suggest that beginning in the 1980's Israel began work on at least two different techniques for production of uranium for nuclear weapons; gas centrifuge and laser separation. Evaluation of several satellite images provides probable indication of which buildings at Dimona may be associated with such activities. The size of these buildings suggests, but cannot prove, that Israeli uranium enrichment activities remain at a relatively small scale. Israel does not appear to have built industrial-scale uranium enrichment at Dimona facility. Existing pilot-scale facilities would not appear to have the potential to substantially increase the total size of the Israeli nuclear weapons stockpile.

A number of other structures and areas are visible in the new imagery, though their functions are not entirely apparent. A probable nuclear waste disposal area is visible about a kilometer from the main facility, as suggested by previously published reports. It has long been reported that Dimona is defended from aerial attack by a battery of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, and a complex possibly associated with such defenses is evident in the satellite imagery.

A rather larger nearby complex, constructed sometime between 1986 and 2000, may possibly be associated with new defenses for Dimona, and may represent the future site of either a Patriot or Arrow anti-missile battery. As many as four Scud-derived missiles were fired towards the vicinity of Dimona by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

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Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:45:08 ZULU