Construction Seen at Secretive Israeli Nuclear Facility | Voice of America

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – A secret Israeli nuclear facility at the center of the country’s undeclared nuclear weapons program is under what appears to be the largest construction project in decades, satellite photos from The Associated Press reveal.

An excavation the size of a soccer field and probably several stories deep is just a few meters from the aging reactor at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the town of Dimona. The facility houses decades-old underground laboratories that likely process the reactor’s spent rods to obtain weapons-grade plutonium for Israel’s nuclear bomb program.

What the construction is used for remains unclear. The Israeli government did not answer detailed questions from the AP about work. As part of its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies nuclear weapons. It is one of only four countries that have never signed up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international treaty aimed at curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Construction comes as Israel, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, maintains its scathing criticism of Iran’s nuclear program, which, unlike its own, remains under the supervision of UN inspectors. This has again called among experts for Israel to publicly announce details of its program.

What “the Israeli government is doing in this secret nuclear weapons plant, the Israeli government must clarify,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based arms control association.

With French help, Israel secretly began construction of the nuclear power plant in an empty desert area near Dimona, a city 90 kilometers south of Jerusalem, in the late 1950s. For years it hid the military purpose of the place from America, today’s main ally of Israel, and even referred to it as a textile factory.

Material for bombs

It is widely believed that with plutonium from Dimona, Israel became one of only nine atomically armed countries in the world. Given the secrecy of its program, it remains unclear how many weapons it has. Analysts estimate that Israel has material for at least 80 bombs. These weapons could likely come from land-based ballistic missiles, fighter jets, or submarines.

The layout of the Dimona plant has remained the same for decades. Last week, however, Princeton University’s International Panel on Fissile Materials found that “significant new construction” had been recorded on the site via commercially available satellite photos, although few details could be seen.

Satellite imagery captured Monday by Planet Labs Inc. at the request of the AP provides the clearest view of activity yet. Immediately southwest of the reactor, workers dug a hole about 150 meters long and 60 meters wide. Remnants from the excavation can be seen next to the construction site. A trench about 330 meters long runs near the excavation.

About 2 kilometers west of the reactor, the boxes are stacked in two rectangular holes that appear to have concrete floors. Remnants from the excavation can be seen nearby. Similar concrete slabs are often used for digging nuclear waste.

Other images from Planet Labs suggest that excavation near the reactor began in early 2019 and has been slow since then.

Analysts speaking with the AP made various suggestions as to what could happen there.

The centre’s heavy water reactor has been in operation since the 1960s and for far longer than most reactors of the same time. This raises both effectiveness and safety issues. In 2004, Israeli soldiers in Dimona began handing out iodine tablets in case a radioactive leak leaked out of the facility. Iodine prevents the body from absorbing radiation.

Possible updates, shutdown

These safety concerns could lead the authorities to decommission or otherwise upgrade the reactor, analysts say.

“I believe the Israeli government is concerned about preserving and maintaining the nation’s current nuclear capabilities,” said Avner Cohen, professor of non-proliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California who has written extensively on Dimona.

“If the Dimona reactor is indeed nearing closure, as I believe, one would expect Israel to see to it that certain functions of the reactor that are still essential are completely replaced.”

Kimball of the Arms Control Association suggested that Israel may want to produce more tritium, a relatively faster decaying radioactive by-product that is used to increase the blast yield of some nuclear warheads. It may also want fresh plutonium to “replace or extend the life of warheads already in Israel’s nuclear arsenal,” he added.

Israel built its nuclear weapons when it has faced multiple wars with its Arab neighbors since its creation in 1948 after the Holocaust. A nuclear weapons program, even if it was not declared, offered an advantage in deterring enemies.

But opponents criticize Israel’s strategy of opacity. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif picked up work in Dimona this week as his country prepared to restrict access to the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency amid tensions with the West over the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal.

“Any talk about concerns about the Iranian nuclear program is absolute nonsense,” Zarif told the English-speaking arm of Iranian state television, Press TV. “Let’s get this straight: it’s hypocrisy.”

In the 1960s, Israel used its claims about opponent Egypt’s missile and nuclear efforts to divert attention from its work in Dimona – and may now choose to do the same with Iran.

“If you are Israel and have a major construction project that is getting attention in Dimona, this is probably the time when you shout the most about the Iranians,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor who also teaches non-proliferation in Middlebury.

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