Government has no plans to close aging Dimona nuclear facility

Officials says reactor doesn’t pose any safety concerns despite having exceeded its life expectancy by more than a decade

The Nuclear Research Center NEGEV, located in Dimona. (screen capture: YouTube, via Channel 10)
The Nuclear Research Center NEGEV, located in Dimona. (screen capture: YouTube, via Channel 10)

The government has announced that it has no intention of closing the the 54-year-old Dimona nuclear research facility, despite its advanced age and over 1,500 structural problems.

The announcement marks the first time the government stated clearly that it has no immediate plans to close the site at Dimona, Haaretz reported on Tuesday.

In April 2016 breakthrough ultrasound testing revealed 1,537 defects and flaws at the aluminum core in Israel’s nuclear facility situated near the southern city. The defects were labeled and continue to be monitored to check if they get larger.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who laid out the government’s position, said the reactor would continue to operate under strict safety criteria. He was responding to a question asked a year and a half ago in the Knesset by Zionist Union’s Yael Cohen Paran, co-chair of the Green Movement following the report of the defects in the core.

“There is no maximum time for the reactor’s work,” Levin said. “The continued operation of the facility is subject to compliance with clear and stringent occupational safety criteria.”

“The ultrasound test performed at the reactor… was part of the strict maintenance procedures. This test did not indicate any problem in the reactor, which would require it to cease operations,” Levin said.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on July 13, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Dimona reactor, built with the support of France, is considered to be the oldest in the world that is still operational. The reactor’s core, which was provided by France in the 1950s and put into action in 1963, was intended to operate for up to 40 years. But it has exceeded the intended time frame, to the consternation of scientists at the site.

According to the same report  that detailed the defects, the core is made of cement-coated metal. The fuel rods are inserted into it, where nuclear fusion takes place. Over the years, the core absorbs tremendous amounts of heat and radiation, which slowly cause a degeneration of its materials.

Two French facilities built at the same time were shut down in 1980.

The oldest French reactor still active began operating in 1977. In Texas there is a small reactor that has been operating since 1969 which is scheduled to close in 2019.

The future of the Dimona reactor is very problematic for the state, since Israel is unlikely to have the budget or the political ability to replace it with a new reactor, Haaretz said.

A photo from the 1960s of the nuclear facility outside Dimona (Flash 90/US National Security Archive)

The Atomic Energy Commission has invested tremendous resources in maintaining the current reactor.

When US diplomatic cables were leaked to the public as part of the WikiLeaks scandal, a telegram by the US Embassy revealed that in 2007 Prof. Eli Abramov, then deputy director general of the reactor, briefed senior Americans and told them the reactor’s systems were being changed.

The commission has said that the intended 40-year lifespan of the reactor was based on mistaken assumptions and lacked any scientific basis. It added that although the defects were discovered only in 2007, it is possible they had been there from the beginning. Furthermore, discovering the defects was part of the safety regimen, and demonstrates the rigorous approach taken by the reactor to monitor any small defect that may create a safety problem.

Israel is believed by foreign governments and media to be the Middle East’s sole nuclear power, but has long refused to confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons, and the Dimona plant officially focuses on research and energy provision.

The Dimona nuclear reactor as viewed from satellite (photo credit: courtesy of United States Government)
The Dimona nuclear reactor as viewed from satellite (photo credit: courtesy of United States Government)

On Monday it was announced that the government is to pay millions in compensation to 168 cancer sufferers who worked in the Dimona Nuclear Research Center, after the two sides settled out of court.

The government is to pay a total of NIS 78 million ($22 million) to the workers, who claim their disease was caused by their work at the nuclear facility.

The agreement follows years of legal wrangling in a class action suit filed by the workers against Israel Atomic Energy Commission and an independent investigation into the claims of causality between the illness and the work at the research facility.

In 2013 a committee was set up, headed by the deputy head of the Supreme Court at the time, Eliezer Rivlin, to rule on whether the cancer was caused by the work done at the research facility.

The committee gave its verdict at the end of 2015. Although it concluded that there was no direct link, it nevertheless recommended that the state compensate the workers, to avoid the government having to discuss details of the top-secret Dimona plant in court.

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