Why is Israel engaging in new construction at the Dimona nuclear site?

Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas have all at different times explicitly or implicitly made it known that in a larger conflict they might try to target Dimona.

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)
Questions are swirling about new satellite images which have revealed that Israel is expanding its Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev desert.
The images released last Thursday by the International Panel on Fissile Material (IPFM) showed that construction work is underway for a major expansion.
IPFM does not know the purpose of the construction and the Prime Minister’s Office had not responded for clarifications by press time.
The construction is apparently taking place on an ongoing basis a few hundred meters southwest of the iconic domed reactor building at Dimona and is, “centered around a large-scale excavation area with the size of about 140 meters by 50 meters,” according to IPFM.
IPFM said that the imagery was acquired by the SuperView-1 (SV-1) satellite on January 4.
It is not clear exactly when construction started, but IPFM said that it appeared the start was in late 2018 or early 2019.
Former Dimona nuclear scientist Uzi Even said that the satellite photos alone could not determine the purpose of the new construction, but that one possibility was that the area designated for the disposal of radioactive waste is no longer sufficient.
Similarly, Israel nuclear program expert Avner Cohen said that he believed the construction was about, “preserving the status quo rather than an aggressive step to add capabilities.”
Also, Cohen added that in consulting with additional experts, his view was that there was digging going, including underground as far as two to three stories.
According to Even, the new construction may be to create new waste disposal areas.
Another possibility could relate to defense.
Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas have all at different times explicitly or implicitly made it known that in a larger conflict they might try to target Dimona.
In 2018, Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) chief Ze’ev Snir said that the country was taking extra measures lately to secure the Dimona site from foreign missiles and other threats.
According to foreign sources, the material for the estimated 80 to 200 nuclear weapons that Israel possesses were produced by Dimona and if the nuclear reactor was no longer operational, the country could no longer produce new 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 beyond 2003, the original plan was to shut it down in 2023.
In 2017-2018, the government confirmed that it was hoping to find ways to extend the life of the Dimona reactor to 80 years, to 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.
Next, 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.
Yet, it turns out that there are nuclear reactors which have continued operating with more than 3,000 cracks in them.
Moreover, a certain number of cracks in the nuclear core are standard and expected by virtue of the way a nuclear reactor operates.
Even has previously said 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 supervision.
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 extending nuclear reactors’ lifespans.
In addition, he said that objections to extending Dimona’s life to 2043 were based on outdated assumptions and objections.
Even responded to Levin at the time 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 the improved technologies developed for replacing parts of the nuclear reactor could only extend the reactor’s life a certain time since the critical nuclear core itself is irreplaceable.
Whatever the purpose of the latest construction, it appears that Israel is moving forward with investing in the area based on the assumption that the reactor will function long beyond 2023.