Professor Uzi Even, one of the founders of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, has a history of being correct about foreign countries’ nuclear capacities.
In 1969, after six years of service at the Nuclear Research Center Negev, he wrote a paper estimating when India would be able to conduct its first underground nuclear test. Then a doctoral candidate in physics at Tel Aviv University, Even came up with a document, distributed far and wide in the relevant circles, that gave a specific date five years ahead — in the spring of 1974. He was three weeks off the mark.
Even was also deeply involved in Israeli assessments of Saddam Hussein’s reactor at Osirak, drawing conclusions that remain controversial to this day — of which more later.
Most recently, Even privately studied two new nuclear programs in the Middle East. The first, in Dir a-Zur, Syria, was a sophisticated and isolated “plutogenic reactor par excellence,” he said, and “without any doubt, it had to be destroyed. And I am glad that it was” (by Israel, according to foreign reports in 2007).
The second, in Iran, is a different story. In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Even said that he had no doubt about Iran’s intention to create a nuclear arsenal. As opposed to Saddam’s Iraq, he said, the Iranians have gone about the pursuit of man’s most deadly weapon in an extremely sophisticated manner — by sectioning the operation and advancing in stages.
Even believes that the regime has already, covertly, created the 20-25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium necessary to conduct a successful underground test
In fact, in contrast to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s August 30 report, which stated that Iran has 189 kilograms of partially enriched uranium fuel — inadequate for a nuclear explosion — Even believes that the regime has already, covertly, created the 20-25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium necessary to conduct a successful underground test. In other words, he believes Iran is already a nuclear power.
But crucially, he said that Iran — in thus far choosing the scientifically less challenging track of producing a solely uranium-based nuclear explosive device, based on the prototype provided by Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan — remains several years shy of being able to deploy a weapon.
The main obstacle in the Iranians’ path, Even said, is weight. A uranium warhead is at least five times heavier than a plutonium one. Creating a nuclear warhead and winnowing down the complex infrastructure necessary to detonate it effectively — to, say, the one-ton maximum payload of Iran’s best ballistic missile, the Shahab-3 — “requires sophistication that neither Iran nor Pakistan have.”
Iran is well aware of this limitation. In article 30 of the IAEA’s most recent report, the director general mentions that the Iranians are planning to begin operating a plutonium-based reactor in the third quarter of 2013, in Arak. Progress on that reactor, Even said, and its march toward operability — forming the plutonium needed for a single bomb would take one year from the moment the facility was working properly — was the true sand in the hourglass.
In an interview that ranged from nuclear history to nuclear science for dummies, Even, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Chemistry who was also Israel’s first openly gay Knesset member (with Meretz, from 2002-3), discussed all the region’s nuclear programs, peaceful and otherwise, and also made clear his staunch opposition to an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities at this time.
He also briefly discussed Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona. It is, he said, the oldest in the region and one of the oldest of its kind in the world, and should have been shut down 10 years ago. Shutting the plant, he noted with deliberate vagueness, would have no wider bearing.
Western safety protocols give such reactors a 40-year life span. Similar reactors in the United States, Even said, “were all shut down during the Carter administration.” Some parts erode, others cannot be replaced. The chance of an accident rises with the years.
“One day they called me into reserves and placed before me the dossier that the intelligence had managed to compile about the reactor in Iraq,” he said.
The document was six inches thick. Even was told to study it and tell his bosses in IDF Military Intelligence whether in his expert opinion the Iraqis were close to attaining a nuclear weapon. He spent two weeks holed up in an office in IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv poring over the material.
The first thing he noticed was the superb quality and scope of the intelligence that had been amassed. There seemed to be nothing that Israel did not know about the reactor that the French had sold Iraq — a 300-million-dollar deal larded with millions of dollars of oil and arms agreements and sealed during Saddam Hussein’s September 1975 visit to Paris.
The next thing he internalized was the degree to which the French had deceived the Iraqi dictator. “The French sold them a reactor that could not do what they wanted. It was a white elephant. And the Iraqis didn’t know that.”
The core of the reactor at Osirak was too small to create meaningful quantities of plutonium; it required highly enriched uranium for its operation, but this fuel was supplied by the French in small quantities only, insufficient for a bomb, and was closely monitored. He reported back to his superior officers: “There is no way to create nuclear weapons from this reactor.”
The government convened a larger panel of scientists. Even would not reveal who sat on this committee or even the number of scientists involved. He maintained, however, that they went over the material and came back with an identical response to his own.
“I thought that was the end of the story,” he said.
Several months later, in 1981, he was called back to reserves. Again he was given an office and presented with a similar dossier. The officer wanted to know, Even said, “where to throw the bombs in order to destroy the reactor.”
Even was surprised. He believed that the best course of action was to let the Iraqis, who still didn’t know how little they knew, “choke on that reactor of theirs.” Attacking Osirak could put them on a different track — where, perhaps like Iran, they would enrich their own uranium or, as Syria apparently tried to do, actually create and chemically separate plutonium.
Disturbed but still obedient, Even instructed military intelligence how best to destroy the reactor. After further contemplation, though, he found he was unable to shake the thought of this attack being a monumental mistake. Knowing that he was endangering his future, and risking many years in prison, he contacted the head of the Knesset opposition, Labor leader Shimon Peres, and set up a meeting on Yarkon Street in Tel Aviv. The two men had known each other since the early sixties, when Peres had presided over the acquisition and construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona.
Peres agreed wholeheartedly with Even and wrote then-prime minister Menachem Begin a letter, warning him that the deadlines are not “realistic” and that “what is intended to prevent can become a catalyst,” according to Rodger Claire’s book “Raid on the Sun,” which details the entire operation to destroy Saddam’s reactor. Peres meant that the destruction of the reactor would only spur the Iraqis on.
The courier delivered the letter to Begin on the morning of May 10, 1981. Neither Peres nor Even had any way of knowing that Israel’s attack planes were scheduled to take off for Iraq that very afternoon. According to Claire’s account, the F-16s had already rolled onto the tarmac, engines roaring in the desert heat.
Begin, fearing that the mission had been compromised, called off the strike and rescheduled it for June 7, 1981 — when it went ahead successfully. Internal security agents in Israel hunted for the source of the leak for years. Claire wrote that many fingered former air force commander and defense minister Ezer Weizman. Only recently, since the statute of limitations has expired, has Even revealed that it was he who tipped Peres off about the planned strike, although he did not know about the timing.
It is a decision he does not regret. He said that Saddam increased the Iraqi nuclear budget tenfold after Osirak was destroyed, switched to a more effective model, and that only the combination of the Iran-Iraq War and the ill-conceived invasion of Kuwait stopped the program in its tracks. Hitting Osirak, Even summarizes — widely hailed to this day as a clinical and vital Israeli operation — was a mistake that could have had catastrophic consequences. Far from stopping Saddam, it actually prompted the start of a potentially viable Iraqi nuclear weapons option, which the Osirak reactor could never have provided.
Even most certainly does not oppose attacks on nuclear facilities in principle. He strongly supported the destruction of Syria’s reactor in 2007. But with Iran — as with Osirak, though for very different reasons — he firmly opposes an attack now.
Speaking softly and only occasionally looking up from the page on which he doodled, Even first pointed out the obvious: Iran is far away from Israel, roughly 1,000 miles, which is a significant difference when compared to the 600-mile flight to Baghdad in 1981. Presumably, however, this is a limitation rather than an immovable obstacle when planning a strike.
Iran is also a regional superpower. He likened the Iranians to the ancient Assyrians, Mesopotamians and Romans and said that engaging in an armed struggle with such a large power could lead to the “economic ruin” of Israel.
Only then did he speak about the significant issues of science and deterrence.
In terms of science, he said that Iran — which, it is largely forgotten, launched its own failed attack against the Iraqi nuclear reactor on September 30, 1980 – has learned many of the lessons of Iraq’s debacle. The Iranians mined their own uranium ore, turned it into a uranium gas and then enriched that gas out in the open, at the facility in Natanz, bringing the uranium from its original 0.7 percent state to a low-enriched state of 3.5 percent and from there, in Qom, to 20 percent.
This process requires several thousand centrifuges – the spinning centrifuges split the uranium-235 atoms from the uranium-238 ones – and could feasibly be used for, say, fuel for existing reactors, which could then create medical isotope to fight cancer, as Iran has claimed. The final stage of enrichment, from 20 percent to weapons-grade fuel, can be done in a small space, far from the public eye. “The critical stage can be done underground, in something the size of a storage room, and no one would know,” he said. Even believes Iran has done precisely this already.
“They have the motivation, they have the knowledge, and I believe we’ve missed the opportunity to stop them from conducting a test. They could do one today,” Even said, adding that the space needed for the final stage of enrichment is something like 3,000 square feet, a chamber that could easily be tucked underground somewhere near the facility in Qom.
(Foreign sources indicate that Israel has experience with this sort of subterfuge. According to Seymour Hersh’s “The Sampson Option,” in 1960 Israeli scientists duped Atomic Energy Commission inspectors into thinking that the nuclear project in Dimona was nothing more than a 24-megawatt research reactor; an elevator shaft had been covered with bricks, concealing a laboratory situated some six stories underground, where plutonium was extracted from spent nuclear fuel and then, several years later, shaped into a perfect ball and fashioned into an atomic warhead. M.G)
The United States and the Soviet Union, Even said, required 1,000 tests each before they were able to create a uranium-based bomb that could be sent on an intercontinental ballistic missile
The Iranian program, thus far, is based on uranium. The United States and the Soviet Union, Even said, required 1,000 tests before they were able to create a reliable nuclear arsenal and abandoned the uranium route as being too cumbersome and unreliable. China eventually abandoned the uranium track because even after years of trying it was unable to concoct a nuclear payload that could reliably reach American shores.
The mechanism that activated the uranium-based bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima, Even said, weighed six tons. “The Iranians may be able to cut that in half, but that is still far too heavy to deliver to Israel.”
The plutonium-uranium divide is also significant in terms of deterrence. In 2001, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the fourth president of Iran and the nation’s de-facto military commander during the Iran-Iraq War, said that the “application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” The brutal logic of Rafsanjani’s argument is not to be dismissed. Certainly not in the age of the suicide bomber. But the asymmetry in size is offset by the potency of the thermonuclear weapons that foreign reports have attributed to Israel. Each of those weapons is potentially hundreds if not thousands of times more powerful than an ordinary atom bomb of the type Iran is pursuing. A thermonuclear weapon, from a uranium-based track, Even said, “is simply not doable.”
Iran has not yet actively pursued the plutonium extraction method. The process of creating plutonium — a substance not found in any significant quantity in nature — is complex and currently beyond the capability of the Iranians. Still, Even said he does not “belittle” their abilities and he was concerned by the IAEA report indicating that the reactor in Arak would begin operations in late 2013.
Asked about the Iranian willingness to sacrifice life by sending an anonymous nuclear device in a suitcase to, say, a port in Ashdod — a scenario that the defense minister has frequently mentioned as one of the threats of a nuclear Iran — he said that the Iran-Iraq War proved that in the end “they do care about human life.” Khomeini did ultimately sign a peace treaty, he noted. As for the suitcase scenario, that would leave the exact same trail as a missile, since the fallout would reveal “a post-mortem signature” indicating precisely where and when the material was made.
“Look,” Even said, summing up his argument, “I don’t trust their good will. But we have capabilities of our own, and they know that, or at least they think they do… There is no one in the Arab world who thinks Israel does not have nuclear weapons.”