Like the Arab states now weighing the benefits of nuclear power, Israel is interested in increasing its electricity production to meet burgeoning demand. From 1990 to 2000, the country's electricity requirements increased an average of 7 percent. In the next 20 years, the National Infrastructure Ministry estimates, Israel will need to provide twice the amount of electricity used today - already in excess of 47 billion kilowatt-hours per year.
Powering today's electricity are billions of shekels worth of coal, crude oil and natural gas, which must be imported. That means a combination of total dependence on foreign sources, high costs and environmental problems, all of which the government would like to relieve rather than exacerbate.
In August, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer strongly suggested that nuclear power could be the answer, saying the country was reviving 20-year-old plans for a nuclear power plant in the Negev and that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert supported such plans.
"The government of Israel is to make a historic decision concerning the building of a nuclear power plant... in the Negev," Ben-Eliezer was quoted as saying. "Given the conditions that have surrounded Israel from the day it was created and its unique geopolitical situation, I believe it is not enough to rely on energy production through conventional means."
Certainly, Israel's "unique geopolitical situation" would become even more complex if its neighbors started building nuclear reactors. That this possibility made the government's interest in nuclear energy an urgent matter was confirmed by Gideon Frank, chairman of the board of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, the country's highest civilian nuclear authority, who said as much during an international conference in Vienna two weeks ago.
Referring to Iran's nuclear program, Frank told the members of the International Atomic Energy Commission that the world body had allowed "gross and consistent non-compliance" from Teheran, and that Israel "can hardly remain oblivious to intensive efforts by some in our region to develop weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, accompanied by sustained denial of the very legitimacy of our sovereign existence and calls for our destruction."
Even though the remarks were indirect, the suggestion that Israel would build a nuclear power plant in response to Iran's assumed ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons confirmed the inevitable connection between civilian and military nuclear programs.
For Israel, that means some tough questions - about any nuclear facility to be built in the future, and about the country's existing facilities as well.
DESPITE HAVING one of the world's most controversial nuclear programs, Israel does not have a nuclear power plant. Whether or not the infamous nuclear facilities in Dimona are producing nuclear weapons, as the rest of the world and most Israelis assume, one thing is clear: It does not produce electricity for our homes. But because, according to foreign reports, it is assumed to be used for the manufacture of weapons-grade plutonium, and because Israel has not ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it may not receive materials from the Nuclear Suppliers Group that would allow it to build a nuclear power plant.
In the past few weeks, officials have been lobbying for exemptions to those restrictions, hoping the nuclear development deal that the US recently signed with India - another country that is not a party to the NPT but has nuclear weapons - will serve as a precedent in Israel's favor.
Considering that there seems to be a consensus among NSG states against allowing Israel to import nuclear material, even limited exemptions to the non-proliferation rules will be difficult to achieve. But the government is taking its request a step further: While officials say they would open up any future nuclear power plant to international inspectors, as required, they would not do the same for the Dimona reactor.
Israel, an Atomic Energy Commission spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post, is stressing that it has been "responsible" with its nuclear program since its establishment in the 1950s, and hoping that this will be enough to convince the NSG that Israel poses no threat to regional security.
How safe, though, are the country's existing nuclear facilities?
To begin with, both the Dimona reactor and the much smaller research reactor at Nahal Sorek south of Rishon Lezion are powered by highly-enriched uranium (HEU). There are about 100 more HEU-type research reactors around the world, but many of them are being converted to low-enriched uranium systems because HEU, being a few steps closer to weapons-grade material, is considered a proliferation threat.
The Nahal Sorek reactor, which was donated by the US in 1958 as part of the "Atoms for Peace" program, conducts medical radioactivity experiments and other highly advanced research. It is open not only to international inspections, but to tour groups as well.
The Dimona facility, which is not only closed to inspection but kept highly guarded from all public discourse, hosts a national radioactive waste disposal site where radioactive waste from hospitals, research institutions, higher education facilities and factories is stored. Fears that the facility, built clandestinely nearly 50 years ago, was a threat in itself were heightened three years ago when authorities distributed Lugol iodine tablets to residents of cities and Beduin encampments around Dimona, in case of an accidental radiation leak.
An Atomic Energy Commission spokeswoman told the Post that any fears over the safety of either the Sorek or Dimona reactors are unwarranted.
"Age is not an issue with these facilities," she said. "The reactors have been refurbished and upgraded several times over the years. In effect, these are not the same reactors that were installed nearly 50 years ago."
Regardless, questions about Israel's nuclear program are likely to increase dramatically - whether because of the development of Arab reactors or because of concerns over a civilian power plant in the desert. Five decades after Israel became the first nuclear power in the Middle East, the long-standing status quo is sure to change as the country's "unique geopolitical situation" changes dramatically. - S.S.