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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(September 26, 2003) Between 15 and 19 September, the General Conference of the IEAE was held. One of the agenda items was Israel and its nuclear weapons. Fifteen Arab countries submitted a resolution calling on Israel to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and submit its nuclear facilities to international safeguards. Developments in Iran and North Korea were also on the agenda of the Conference in Vienna. In the WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor we gave backgrounds on the Iranian (1) and North Korean (2) weapons development and in this issue we describe the history of Israel's nuclear bomb.

(593.5545) WISE Amsterdam - On 12 September, the IAEA called on Iran to prove by 31 October that it had no secret nuclear weapons program. According to the 15 Arab states, Israel also has to be mentioned and be required to sign the NPT. Although Israel is a member of the IAEA it never signed the NPT, being one of the few countries in the world who didn't. Egypt proposed a further resolution calling for a nuclear-weapon-free-zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East.(3)

The resolution on Israel was not adopted, but the General Conference adopted the call for the NWFZ. It mentioned an urgent need for all states in the region to accept full scope safeguards for its nuclear facilities.(4)

Israel started developing nuclear weapons after the Second World War. Its production facilities are located at Dimona in the Negev Desert.

After establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the country started to investigate the nuclear option. In 1949, the Hemed Gimmel, a special unit of the Israel Defense Force's Science Corps, began a two-year geological survey of the Negev Desert to discover uranium reserves. Although no significant sources were found, recoverable amounts were located in phosphate deposits.(5)

Close cooperation existed between Israeli and French research institutes. France had been a leading research center in nuclear physics before the Second World War, but had fallen far behind developments in the U.S., Soviet Union and the U.K. Israel and France were at a similar level of expertise and consequently the development of nuclear technology in both countries remained closely linked in the early 1950's. Israeli scientists for instance were involved in the construction of the (military) G-1 plutonium production reactor and the UP-1 reprocessing plant at Marcoule. In the 1950's and early 1960's, France was Israel's principal arms supplier and as instability spread in France's colonies in North Africa, Israel provided valuable intelligence obtained from those countries.(6)

The Israel Atomic Energy Commission was established in 1952. By that time, the Hemed Gimmel had been able to perfect the process to extract uranium found in Negev and was also able to produce heavy water for a research reactor.(7)

Israel choose for the option of heavy water for cooling/moderator and natural uranium as fuel. With normal light water it would need enriched uranium, which was too difficult to obtain. Heavy water reactors with natural uranium fuel are very capable for the production of plutonium.

On 3 October 1957, France and Israel signed the agreement for the construction of a 24 MWth research reactor at Dimona (Hebrew for "imagination") in the Negev Desert. Besides, but not committed to paper, was the promise of France to build a chemical reprocessing plant. The complex was built in secret by French and Israeli technicians. French customs officials were told that certain components, such as the reactor tank, were part of a desalinization plant in Latin America. In addition, after buying heavy water from Norway on the condition that it not be transferred to a third country, the French Air Force secretly flew as much as four tons of it to Israel.

Trouble arose during construction in 1960 when France urged Israel to submit Dimona to international inspections in fear of a scandal when it would become clear that France had assisted Israel, especially concerning the reprocessing plant. Israel worked out a compromise. France would supply the uranium and components that were promised and would not insist on international inspections. Israel in return would assure France that they had no intention to make nuclear weapons.(8)

It was impossible to keep the reactor secret for the world. During construction in 1958, U-2 spy planes took pictures of the facility, but the U.S. did not identify it at that time as a nuclear reactor. It was variously explained as a textile factory, an agricultural station or a metallurgical research facility. Until Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion stated in December 1960 that Dimona was a nuclear research center for "peaceful purposes". It was too difficult to deny that the facility was something else than a reactor because of its characteristic dome shape.(9) (10)

Dimona went critical in 1964. French officials were surprised to discover that the cooling circuits were designed to support three times the original power level at its start (24 MWth). Without the addition of extra cooling, a scale-up to 70 MWth was indeed done years later.

Next to the reactor and the underground reprocessing plant, Dimona also houses: a uranium processing facility, a waste treatment plant, a fuel fabrication facility, a laboratory and a depleted uranium bullets factory. It would also house a facility for uranium enrichment tests.(11)

Presently, the reactor has been 40 years in operation and is in a bad condition. Last year, former workers revealed to the media that there is a frightening absence of safety procedures and that workers got contaminated and had been exposed to high levels of radiation.(12)

It has always been difficult for Israel to obtain uranium for the reactor because it did not sign the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It had developed some capability of extracting uranium from phosphate ores at Dimona, but used also "Grey market" channels to fuel Dimona.

In 1965, up to 100 kilograms of high enriched uranium got missed from the U.S. Numec Corporation in Apollo, Pennsylvania. Because of other (non-)nuclear deals of the Numec chairman with Israel it was believed that the uranium had gone to Israel. Other reports however suggest that much of the missing uranium was recovered from floors and ventilation ducts when the facility was eventually decommissioned.(13) (14)

In 1968, a load of 200 tons of uranium (yellow cake) was hijacked (or simply delivered) from the German boat "Sheersberg A".(15)

Israel also cooperated with South Africa on nuclear technology. It seems to have started around 1967 and continued through the 1970's and 1980's. During that period, South Africa was a principal supplier of uranium for Dimona. There is possibly a role of Israel in a nuclear weapons test in the Indian Ocean (22 September 1979), which is widely believed to be a joint SA-Israel test.(16)

U.S. relations
Israel has close relations with the U.S. In 1955, when the contract for Dimona had not yet been signed, the U.S. agreed to sell a 5 MW swimming-pool research reactor to Nahal Soreq, south of Tel Aviv. But the U.S. forced Israel to accept safeguards because the U.S. supplied high enriched uranium fuel for the reactor.(17)

With the official announcement of 1960, that Israel had a reactor for "peaceful purposes", the relation between the U.S. and Israel was strained over the issue. In public, the U.S. accepted Israel's "peaceful purposes", but exerted pressure privately. After pressure, Israel finally committed to admit U.S. inspection teams once a year. These inspections took place between 1962 and 1969 but were in fact a big joke. Only aboveground parts of the facility were shown, whereas the reprocessing work took place at many levels underground. The aboveground areas had simulated control rooms and access to the underground rooms was hidden for the inspectors.(18)

The U.S. inspectors were able to report that there was no clear scientific research or civilian nuclear power program justifying such a large reactor but found no hard evidence of "weapons related activities" such as the existence of the plutonium reprocessing plant.

In 1968 however the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Israel had started producing nuclear weapons. This was based on information from Edward Teller, father of the U.S. hydrogen bomb. Teller had told the CIA that he had heard this from Israeli friends in the scientific and defense establishment. He told the CIA not to wait for an Israeli nuclear test to make a final assessment because that test would never be carried out.(19)

In 1981, the U.S. embargoed further shipments of high enriched uranium fuel to the Nahal Soreq reactor.(20)

Israeli sabotage
Israel conducted a number of sabotage actions in concern about Iraq's nuclear weapons development. In April 1979, the intelligence agency Mossad is believed to be responsible for two explosions at a construction yard in Seine sur Mer, France. Two research reactor cores destined for Iraq were seriously damaged.

In June 1980, Dr. Yahya Meshed was assassinated in Paris where he was negotiating a contract for Iraq to take over Iran's share of the French Eurodif enrichment plant. Already in 1978, unknown attackers tried to kill him when he was a technical liaison with France for the export of the Osiris research reactor.

Most famous sabotage by Israel is the bombing of the Tammuz-I research reactor at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center near Baghdad. On 7 June 1980, aircraft bombing destroyed the 70 MWth reactor completely. According to Israel, Iraq was about to start producing plutonium in the reactor for the manufacture of a nuclear weapon.(21)

Recently, there were concerns expressed that Israel also wants to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, such as the Busher NPP when Iran continues its construction with the help of Russia.(22)

After the opening of the Dimona reactor in 1964, it started producing plutonium. It is believed that the first two bombs were ready in 1967 at the time of the Six-Day War. In 1974, the CIA estimated that Israel had up to 20 nuclear bombs.

By the late 1990's, U.S. intelligence organizations estimated that Israel possessed between 75 and 130 nuclear warheads. The warheads can be used in the Jericho missiles as well as bombs in aircraft.

Israel has never conducted a weapons test of its own, apart from the (believed) joint test with South Africa in 1979. However a sub-critical test (with no real nuclear explosion) may have done in November 1966 at Al-Naqab in the Negev Desert.(23)

Nuclear alerts
During the Six-Day War (against Syria) in June 1967 the first two developed bombs may have been armed. It is also reported that, fearing defeat in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War (against Egypt and Syria), the Israeli army readied 13 bombs of 20 kilotons each for use. Missiles and aircraft were armed with the bombs for an attack on Egypt and Syrian targets.(24) (25)

During operation Desert Storm (U.S. strike against Iraq in 1991), Israel went on full scale nuclear alert when 7 Iraqi Scud missiles were fired at Israeli cities. Only 3 missiles hit Tel Aviv and Haifa with only minor damage. But the Israeli government warned Iraq with a counter strike if the Iraqis used chemical warheads, to mean that Israel intended to launch a nuclear strike if gas attacks occurred.(26)

In 1986, former Dimona worker Mordechai Vanunu revealed details of the Dimona plant to the London Sunday Times. The descriptions and photographs he made during his employment supported the conclusion that Israel had a stockpile of 100 to 200 nuclear warheads.(27)

Following his revelations, Vanunu fell into a trap by the Mossad and was kidnapped. In a closed door trial he was convicted to 18-year prison (in isolation). Recently it became known that on 22 April 2004 he will be released.(28)

(1) WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 584.5495: "Iran's nuclear program", 7 March 2003
(2) WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 581.5481: "North Korea's nuclear facilities", 17 January 2003
(3) AFP, 17 September 2003
(4) IAEA,, 19 September 2003
(5) Federation of American Scientists (FAS), 17 August 2000, see also for additional links.
(6) Israel's Nuclear Weapons Program, 10 December 1997,
(7) FAS, see 5
(8) FAS, see 5
(9) FAS, see 5
(10) The Nuclear Fix; A Guide to Nuclear Activities in the Third World, WISE, 1982, p. 93-95
(11) Dimona Negev Nuclear Research Center, Global, 12 August 2002,
(12) WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 562.5371: "Dimona death factory exposed", 1 February 2002
(13) The Nuclear Fix, see 10
(14) Dimona Negev Nuclear Research Center, see 11
(15) The Nuclear Fix, see 10
(16) Israel's Nuclear Weapons Program, see 6
(17) The Nuclear Fix, see 10
(18) Israel's Nuclear Weapons Program, see 6
(19) FAS, see 5
(20) The Nuclear Fix, see 10
(21) The Nuclear Fix, see 100
(22) The Washington Times, 29 August 2003
(23) FAS, see 5
(24) FAS, see 5
(25) Israel's Nuclear Weapons Program, see 6
(26) Israel's Nuclear Weapons Program, see 6
(27) Dimona Negev Nuclear Research Center, see 11
(28) U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu,

Contact: WISE Amsterdam