Real Israel: Core issues

A planned atomic museum could turn into a "joule" in the crown for Beersheba.

November 12, 2010 16:53
4 minute read.
Dimona nuclear reactor

311_dimona reactor. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

If you have that “been there-done-that” feeling and are looking for something different, there’s good news. A recent Yediot Aharonot story by Yaron Sasson revealed a nuclear secret. Well, not quite. But Sasson did report that a special museum is being planned in Beersheba which will focus on nuclear science and history.

The museum will not give out nuclear secrets – I guess we’ll just have to rely on comments by former US President George Bush or convicted spy Mordechai Vanunu for that – but it will give visitors an idea of how nuclear science can be applied in medicine and energy fields, for example.According to Sasson’s report, the museum is planned to open in 2012 and will be part of a 20-dunam science park planned to be erected in Beersheba at a cost of NIS 120 million, an initiative of both the Beersheba Municipality and the Rashi Foundation.

The nuclear museum, at the complex’s core as it were, reportedly has the enthusiastic support of the everyoung President Shimon Peres, who doesn’t mind who knows that he was behind the creation of the Dimona nuclear plant as defense minister in the 1950s although he won’t let you know exactly what’s in it.

Indeed, Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity” (known in Hebrew as “amimut atomit”) still reigns. As Golda Meir once reportedly told a journalist: “If you think we’ve got the bomb, and the Arabs think we’ve got the bomb, does it really matter if we have it or not?”

The policy seems to be so ingrained that even after two phone calls and two e-mails to the Beersheba Municipal spokesperson’s office, I still couldn’t get an official confirmation of Sasson’s story, which is a pity. The idea is a good one. Passing through the city a few months ago I couldn’t help but notice how fast Beersheba is developing, and from various interviews and projects that have been published it’s clear the mayor is interested in putting it on the map not as a city to pass through but a place to stop off at.

The fusion of the city made famous by Abraham some 4,000 years ago with the site of a very modern nuclear museum is a stroke of genius. Einstein would be proud. It’s not hard to come up with a pro-nuclear museum campaign slogan, either: something like “You’ve prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, played on the beach in Tel Aviv, now have a blast in Beersheba.”

Actually, the concept is not new. In 2003, I wrote of a similar nucleus of an idea for a museum then mooted to be established at the Rotem Park close to Dimona with a model reactor as its main atomic attraction.

There was no proliferation of information even then, although those plans were first published in the staff journal of the Dimona reactor and the basic outline seem to be similar: very hands-on and hi-techy but based on real science and technology. “It will not be like Disneyland,” said a Dimona employee identified only as Elhanan at the time.

The exhibits in Beersheba, too, are expected to be very interactive although I can just imagine mothers going around telling their kids: “Don’t touch THAT button!”

You don’t need X-ray vision to see that there will definitely be a section relating to safety issues and risks. And even without any mention of nuclear weapons, the section on medicinal uses will probably underscore the huge difference between what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad means when he says he intends to use nuclear technology to “get rid of cancer” and how doctors put it to good use both in diagnostics and treatments.

When I wrote about the planned museum in Dimona – and I’m still trying to find out why that project was nuked – I uncovered an aspect of nuclear ambiguity that I hadn’t previously considered.

The in-house journal noted that the atomic museum would provide an opportunity for the reactor’s staff to show their children and grandchildren what they do at work all day. A nuclear plant is not, after all, the sort of place you can bring the kids when they don’t have school or aren’t feeling well – or not without wondering what it was that gave them a certain glow at the end of the visit.

Altogether, the museum will be investing a lot of energy in education. It seems from Sasson’s report and what I could glean in the past that it is part of a concerted effort to rid Beersheba and the South of their image as “peripheral” areas, by enriching the science studies of local schoolchildren. It’s as simple as Alpha, Beta, Gamma.

I ONCE visited the Dimona nuclear plant. As an environment reporter, I accompanied the very PR-savvy then-minister Yossi Sarid on a trip which didn’t give any of us much of an idea of what really goes on there but provided a good opportunity for Sarid to have his photo taken holding a Geiger counter.

The visit did prove one thing, however – how hard it is to keep anything a secret in Israel. At the very start of the trip the press entourage was chaperoned into a cafeteria for coffee and cakes and I immediately bumped into someone I hadn’t seen for years and didn’t know worked there.

Nobody could accuse the Beersheba nuclear project of being launched with a Big Bang, but with luck, and a bit more openness, hopefully it won’t bomb.

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