Is Israel's nuclear reactor still safe?

With threats to Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona in the news frequently of late, the elephant in the room has been absent from the front pages.

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)

With threats to Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona frequently in the news of late, the elephant in the room has been absent from the front pages.


Last week, Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) chief Ze’ev Snir said that the country has taken extra measures recently to secure the Dimona site from foreign missiles and other threats.


But he did not say a word about the fact that the reactor may not last past 2023 due to its own internal limitations.


According to foreign sources, the material for the 80 to 200 nuclear weapons that Israel possesses was produced at Dimona – and if the nuclear reactor would no longer be operational, the country could no longer produce plutonium for new weapons.


Dimona’s nuclear reactor was originally built to last only 40 years, until 2003. Even with a variety of new technologies and strategies to extend its lifetime, the reactor is due to be shut down in 2023. The Jerusalem Post has confirmed a November 2017 report in Haaretz in that Israel is now hoping it can find ways to extend the life of the Dimona reactor to 80 years, or until 2043.


Such an extension is highly controversial as the vast majority of nuclear reactors that are the same age as Israel’s were shut down after 40 years, or long before the 60-year point approaching in 2023.


Furthermore, the controversy has gone from pushing the envelope on general safety rules for closing nuclear reactors, to specific objections on extending Dimona’s lifespan, as its nuclear core contained more than 1,500 cracks which have been disclosed.


Yet, it turns out that the volume of cracks, however scary sounding, is not so decisive. There are nuclear reactors which have continued operating with more than 3,000 cracks in them. Not only that, but a certain volume of cracks in the nuclear core is standard and expected by virtue of the way a nuclear reactor operates.


Former Dimona scientist Uzi Even told the Post that his main concerns about extending Dimona’s lifespan beyond 2023 relate less to cracks and more to whether it is safe to replace so many parts of a reactor to lengthen its life, as well as whether there is sufficient oversight.


In November 2017, Yariv Levin, who is both tourism minister and the cabinet’s liaison with the Knesset, wrote a letter to Zionist Union MK Yael Cohen Paran about Dimona.


He argued that prior statements by former IAEC chief Gideon Frank – that 2023 was the absolute limit on extensions for Dimona – were made before the discovery of new technologies and approaches to further extend the lifespan of nuclear reactors. In addition, he said that objections to extending Dimona’s life to 2043 were based on outdated assumptions and objections.


Even responded to Levin saying: “I am suspicious when an organization does its own oversight – it’s not good. An outside group should perform oversight, which is complex.”


Also, he said that even all of the improved technologies developed for replacing parts of the nuclear reactor could only extend the reactor’s life so far since the critical nuclear core itself is irreplaceable.


Communicating with Frank von Hippel, co-director of the program on science and global security at Princeton University, the Post confirmed that more important than the quantity of cracks in a reactor is the quality of its various deficiencies and globally how they impact its ability to operate or cool down.


In the broader global debate over whether extending a nuclear reactor’s life to 80 years is safe, Von Hippel confirmed that there are two sides.


One side of the debate, which appears to include Israel and the US government, seems to think virtually every part of a nuclear reactor can be replaced and that 80 years may not even be the limit, but maybe 100 years or more.
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.
A decision is expected in 2020 and the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania filed a similar application in July with two more nuclear stations projected to file by 2020.
On the other side of the debate is Europe with nuclear reactors in England, Scotland and Belgium which have had major issues since May and before - this even though they are younger than the Dimona reactor and the US reactors slated to be extended to 80-years.
The Hunterston, Scotland nuclear facility had to shut down unexpectedly due to deficiencies and had to extend its shutdown several months when the operator found unexpected additional serious cracks.
Germany is on a path to shut down by 2022 what was once its 17 nuclear facilities and globally the trend is to shut down facilities as old as Dimona.


Von Hippel concurred that some of the differences between the US and the European approaches could be a greater concern for safety in Europe, but that other differences relate to the fact that the reactors themselves are built differently in the US than in Europe.


There is an additional level of complexity in comparing nuclear reactors and policies of different governments, he stated.


He explained that only look- ing at how a reactor was built – whether it is a “research” reactor operating at a lower level of energy and risk, or a “power” reactor operating at a higher level of energy and risk – is not the only question. Rather, comparisons also need to look at how the 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 which carries fewer 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, Von Hippel said.


Still, he said, “I personally think that the Dimona reactor should be shut down because Israel has enough plutonium and could produce tritium in another way – with an accelerator for example.”


Dovetailing with the IAEC’s recent public comments, he said, “I also am concerned that Dimona could be targeted in war – as any reactor in the Middle East could be.”


He added, “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.”


Despite these concerns, he said, “given the minimal information that has been made public, it is difficult to argue for or against its safety.”


The deeper the Post delved into the various debates, the more it seems to emerge that both sides are quite far from knowing how long these reactors can really last safely and that the debates started long before 2017.


Furthermore, it seems that the incentives for governments, whether economic, environmental or regarding electrical capacity, are heavily stacked toward pushing the envelope.


It is often only when there is a problem with continued operation or a health incident that public opinion quickly shifts to suddenly paying attention to the experts who have long warned about safety.


It would appear that ready or not – unless there is an actual crisis that bursts into public view beyond the censor’s ability – Dimona will be steaming full speed ahead into 2043.