Experts agree Dimona nuke reactor can exceed original life expectancy

"The full lifespan of a nuclear reactor is customarily considered to be 40 years... a reactor’s lifespan may be doubled through improvements and upgrades without diminishing its safety.”

View of the Israeli nuclear facility in the Negev Desert outside Dimona  (photo credit: JIM HOLLANDER / POOL / REUTERS)
View of the Israeli nuclear facility in the Negev Desert outside Dimona
(photo credit: JIM HOLLANDER / POOL / REUTERS)
Two experts from INSS published a paper on Thursday essentially endorsing the government’s rationale for extending the life of the country’s Dimona nuclear reactor 40 years or more beyond its original intended lifespan.
According to foreign sources, the material for the 80 to approximately 200 nuclear weapons that Israel possesses was produced by Dimona, and if the nuclear reactor was no longer operational, the country could no longer produce new plutonium for new weapons.
The authors, former director general of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and IDF Brig. Gen. (ret) Uzi Eilam and Gilead Shear, former IDF Col. (ret.) and chief-of-staff to then-prime minister Ehud Barak, perform a wide review of trends and problems with nuclear reactors globally and what makes Dimona unique.
While the report notes that “the full lifespan of a nuclear reactor is customarily considered to be 40 years... a reactor’s lifespan may be doubled through improvements and upgrades without diminishing its safety.” This goes to the heart of the debate over Dimona, which went active in 1963 and was originally set to be retired in 2003.
Subsequently, Israeli atomic experts argued that Dimona’s lifespan could be extended to 2023, and in 2018, The Jerusalem Post confirmed a November 2017 report by Haaretz that Israel now believes it can extend the life of Dimona until 2043.
The Post spoke on Thursday to Shear, who said that while extending Dimona’s lifespan was not without risks, experts he had spoken with both inside and outside the government had overall confidence that it was doable because of a series of unique factors.
Discussing both the larger Dimona reactor and Israel’s smaller Nahal Sorek Research Center, the report says that “The degree of risk posed by the research activities in both Dimona and in Sorek is not similar to the risk posed by power plants for electricity generation.”
For example, they write that “the quantity of fissile material in the reactor in Dimona is smaller by two orders of magnitude than that of a reactor for electricity generation with an output of 1,000 megawatts, and, at the Soreq Center, even less, about five megawatts.”
They argue that “even if malfunctions occur, their potential magnitude can in no way be compared to the magnitude” of the nuclear reactor that melted down in Chernobyl, Three Mile Island in the US, or Fukushima in Japan.
Furthermore, the report says that “special attention is devoted to safe storage and continuous cooling of the spent reactor fuel that continues to emit radiation and decay heat.”
Separate from the immediate question of whether Dimona can continue to operate, they wrote that even in a worst case scenario, Dimona has special safety features to avoid a disaster, such as having been “constructed inside a containment building.”
Probably the most crucial point they contend is that Dimona “undergoes routine periodic shutdowns for testing and maintenance, which have included replacements of many components such as valves, coolant pipes, and more.”
Specifically, they say, “the condition of the steel tank that houses the nuclear fuel rods and the neutron absorber is tested during every maintenance cycle.”
Besides that, Shear told the Post that from their research and consultations, they believed that while nothing is perfect, there was sufficient oversight to ensure Dimona is “maintained and upgraded until it will ultimately be shut down” if reactor experts “assess that the tank is liable to jeopardize” the reactor’s safety.
In September 2018, the Post interviewed Frank von Hippel, co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, about many of the same issues.
Von Hippel seemed to agree with the INSS report that research reactors like Israel has generally carried a lower risk than power reactors in other countries that operate at a higher level of energy.
However, he indicated another question was how the specific reactor is used.
For example, Von Hippel said the Dimona reactor could be operated at a lower temperature and then be viewed more like a “pool” reactor, a lower pressure reactor that carries lower risks of failure. This would be true even though it is a “heavy water” reactor, a higher pressure reactor with higher risks of failure.
This and the fact that “its control and instrumentation could have been refurbished” could reduce concerns about extending Dimona’s lifespan.
However, Von Hippel was concerned about potential attacks on Dimona, and said that Israel already has enough plutonium for its various needs.
“There is, however, the institutional question of whether there is a truly independent safety regulator for Dimona on whose judgment Israelis can depend…that is very difficult to assure,” Von Hippel said.
In other words, many of the experts who sign off on whether Dimona can continue are to a large extent dependent on their jobs for it to continue.
Though pushing a reactor like Dimona to run for 80 years is mostly uncharted waters, the US has one example. In January, the Turkey Point nuclear plant in Florida became the first to formally file with the US nuclear regulatory commission to extend its lifespan to 80 years.
Three other US plants are expected to follow suit.
In the paper, they write that there is an increased public concern regarding the inherent risks of operating nuclear reactors following the 2019 television series “Chernobyl,” referring to the nuclear reactor that had a cataclysmic melt down in Ukraine.
The report states that there are currently 450 nuclear reactors operating worldwide, and 60 more are under construction.
It then cites two opposing trends, with parts of the world reducing the construction of new reactors due to the perceived safety risks, and parts of the world increasing construction.
While the US has the most with 99 operating reactors, it has only four under construction.
Following the US is France, which operates 58 reactors but is only building one new facility. The entire rest of Europe is not building any new facilities, and has a heavy trend of trying to retire existing nuclear reactors due to the anti-nuclear reactor political winds, say Eilam and Shear.
European reactors have had operating problems, some of which have simply annoyed the public with power outages, while others which have caused fear of meltdowns.
In contrast to the trend to reduce construction in the US and Europe, the report says that while China has only 36 existing nuclear reactors, it is now building more plants than any other country, with 20 reactors currently under construction.
Russia operates 36 reactors and is building seven more – still more new construction than the US and all of Europe combined.
Japan operates 41 and is building two, South Korea operates 25 reactors and is building three, while India closes the list of leading countries, operating 22 reactors and is building five, states the report.
Explaining the rationale for the countries which are increasing their reliance on nuclear reactors, the authors write that “notwithstanding the major accidents, nuclear energy is, for the most part, considered clean, stable and reliable.”
Further, they say that “Proponents of the use of nuclear energy claim that its cost is relatively low, the reprocessing of the irradiated reactor fuel reduces costs even more, it provides a stable infrastructure for a country’s energy economy, and it emits a low level of environmental pollution while generating fuel that will be available for many years.”
On the flip side, besides the catastrophic impact of a technical nuclear meltdown, Eilam and Shear note incremental long-term health and environmental risks as well as the possibility of a reactor explosion due to an attack.