Earthquakes and Israel’s nuclear project: A nightmare scenario

Posted: March 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The policy of nuclear opacity forbids Israelis from dealing with the very real danger of a nuclear catastrophe following a natural disaster. Will the earthquake in Japan change that?

Plutonium separation plant control room at the Dimona Nuclear facility, as photographed and exposed by Mordechai Vanunu (photo: Mordechai Vanunu, http://www.vanunu.com/)

Plutonium separation plant control room at the Dimona Nuclear facility, as photographed and exposed by Mordechai Vanunu (photo: Mordechai Vanunu, http://www.vanunu.com/)

One of the gravest fears following the earthquake which took place near the Japanese coastline this Friday was a meltdown at the at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, located some 250km north of Tokyo. Recent reports claimed that the situation in the reactor was under control, but according an AP story, radiation near the plant was 1,000 times higher than usual. One could only imagine the devastating effect of a Chernobyl-like catastrophe to the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Israel’s nuclear facility is located near the town of Dimona, just West of the Dead Sea, and practically on the Syrian-African Fault Line, at the heart of the area most prone to earthquakes in the entire region. Statistically, every hundred years or so a major earthquake shakes the Syrian-Africa Fault Line. The most well-known were the 1837 and the 1937 earthquakes, which left hundreds of casualties along the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. There is greater attention to the risk of earthquakes in Israel in recent years, and building standards were tightened accordingly. Yet the policy of nuclear opacity means that the danger of a meltdown in Dimona is hardly discussed.

Censorship of the nuclear issue is very tight in Israel. Accidents in Dimona, including fatal ones which happened in the 60′s and 70′s, were hidden from the public. Since 2002, tablets of Lugol’s solution – which fight the effects of nuclear radiation and can be taken in case of nuclear emergency – are distributed to citizens living less than 30km of the Dimona plant. Yet the Israeli media was never allowed to discuss safety procedures in Dimona, and repercussions in the case of a natural catastrophe are all but unknown.

Environmental NGO’s such as Greenpeace are forbidden from measuring radiation in the region, and the committee in charge of the Dimona plant’s maintenance operates in total secrecy. It’s worth mentioning that the Dimona reactor, built in the late 50′s and early 60′s with the help of French scientists, is one of the oldest in the West.

A few months ago, I interviewed Avner Cohen, the unofficial historian of the Israeli nuclear program. Due to censorship and other legal restraints on his work, Cohen left Israel in the 90′s and now lives in Washington DC, yet he was close to several of the founding fathers of the Israeli nuclear program and has intimate knowledge the Dimona project, and especially of its early stages.

I asked Cohen about the possibility of a natural catastrophe that could lead to a nuclear disaster in Dimona – one that would affect the entire region, and especially southern Jordan, the West Bank and nearby Israeli cities. Cohen believes that the scientists in charge of the project are well aware of these dangers, and that the facility is as safe as it could be, under the circumstances. Yet without any public information, he admitted we could never know that for sure.

It is Cohen’s belief that Israel should end its policy of nuclear opacity, and seek an arrangement with the international community that would allow it to conduct its nuclear activities in the open. Cohen claims that opacity has a dangerous effect on Israeli democracy, on our understanding of the region’s history, and on current political and diplomatic dynamics. I think that we should add to that the environmental risk of nuclear opacity – one that was revealed again this weekend in Japan.


Should Israel go public about its nuclear capacities?

Posted: October 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments »

On Dr. Avner Cohen’s new book, “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb”

My featured story about Dr. Avner Cohen’s new book on Israel’s nuclear policy was published today in Haaretz. In his book, Dr. Cohen discusses the opacity policy – the Israeli-American understanding the Israel “shall not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East” – and concludes that currently the costs of this policy outweigh its benefits. Israel, argues Cohen, should be more open about its nuclear program.

What’s interesting in Dr. Cohen book is his determination to examine the nuclear policy not only as an issue of international relation, war and peace, but to also to consider its impact on Israeli democracy, freedom of speech, government accountability and decision making processes.

Reading the book and listening to Dr. Cohen can make one grasps how nuclear weapons affect out existence as human being and as citizens in many ways which we never imagined. The fact that our leaders have the ability to destroy the entire region, if not the world, is not only a security or military issue, but also something that changes the nature of democracy and society’s balance of power.

One of the advantages of opacity is that it enables people not to think about these matters. But suppression is never a good idea, not for individuals and surly not for nations. In the long run, secrecy is not the way to address fundamental questions.

An issue that wasn’t mentioned on the English edition of my interview with Dr. Cohen – but did exist in the original Hebrew version – is the connection between Israel’s nuclear project and the peace process. Dr. Cohen believes that the present of nuclear weapons made Israelis somewhat arrogant and reluctant to agree to diplomatic offers – such as the Saudi peace plan from 2002 – that they would have gladly welcomed a few decades ago.

At the same time, Cohen raises what seems as a contradicting argument, but one that he views as the other side of the same coin: that opacity, meaning the fact that those weapons are never discussed, makes Israelis feel more threatened and weak than they really are. Israelis are ignorant of the affect the “Dimona Project” has on their history and politics, Cohen says.

To illustrate this poinhe brings in his book a couple of historical episodes when, according to his sources, Israeli leaders felt so threatened that they considered demonstrating the state’s nuclear capabilities.

Because of issues involving the military censorship, In the Haaretz article I cited these episodes from Cohen’s book without discussing them.

The first story concerns the development of a nuclear device and a military plan to use it in the days leading to the 67′ war:

“At a time when Israel was preparing temporary burial sites for thousands of soldiers, it was unthinkable that the leaders of the nuclear project would sit idle,” writes Cohen in his book.

“Prime Minister Eshkol was not in a position to stop them, and he must have authorized special emergency activity. In the few days before the war, Israel did something it had never done before. In an intensive crash effort, Israeli teams improvised the assembly of the nation’s first nuclear explosive devices. As Israeli scientists and technicians were ‘tickling the dragon’s tail,’ meaning assembling the first nuclear cores for those devices, only a few of them were even aware that there was a military contingency plan in the works. As Israeli leaders contemplated the worst scenarios – in particular, the failure of the Israeli air force to destroy the Arab air forces, and/or the extensive use by Egypt of chemical weapons against Israeli cities – authority was given for preliminary contingency planning for ‘demonstrating’ Israel’s nuclear capability.

“The idea was to create the technical possibility of demonstrating Israel’s nuclear capability over some remote desert area as a political signal, not to actually use the devices militarily. Israel wanted to be in a position to send a signal to Egypt and to the superpowers that if all else failed and Israel’s existence was in peril, Israel would have a doomsday capability to inflict great harm on Egypt. The final step in the assembly process, arming the devices, was never taken … These were the most dramatic moments for those involved, especially the project’s leaders. It was seen as the moment when Israel actually became a nuclear power. From their perspective, it was also an irreversible moment.”

The second story happened during the 1973 war:

The toughest test of the policy of nuclear ambiguity occurred in 1973, just four years after its principles were agreed upon by Meir and Nixon. According to Cohen, Defense Minister Dayan apparently requested during the first days of the Yom Kippur War to carry out a “nuclear demonstration,” and he summoned IAEC (Israel Atomic Energy Commission, the agency in charge of the nuclear project) director general Freier to a meeting of the war cabinet.

“Dayan feared that Israel was approaching a point of no return, and he evidently wanted the United States to take notice that Israel had reached that point,” Cohen writes in his book. “According to one person’s testimony [Arnon 'Sini' Azaryahu, a confidante of Israel Galili, who waited for Galili outside the conference room, and heard the report of events immediately after the meeting ended], at the end of the war cabinet meeting in the late morning of October 9, a day after the IDF had failed miserably in its first counterattack in the Egyptian frontier, Dayan suggested discussing some options involving a nuclear demonstration. On hand was Shalheveth Freier, the IAEC’s director general, who was waiting to provide a briefing. As soon as Dayan made his suggestion, Ministers Allon and Galili told the prime minister that such discussion was premature and uncalled for. The prime minister agreed with them, and Freier did not address the forum.”

In the book’s section on the Yom Kippur War, Cohen relies on the testimony of Prof. Yuval Ne’eman, an adviser to the defense minister in this period and a veteran researcher of the nuclear project, and confirms estimates published in foreign sources that during the 1973 war, Israel took steps whose implication was that its level of nuclear preparedness was upgraded.

“It also appeared that on two or three occasions during the war,” writes Cohen, “a ‘strategic alert’ (a euphemism for nuclear alert ) was declared, twice in the first week of the war and the third time on October 17 or 18, in response to a state of alert of Soviet SCUD missiles in Egypt. It is believed that those states of alert involved certain readiness ‘dispositions’ such as mobilizing the Jericho missiles from their shelters, fueling them, and other related activities.”

Finally, I want to point readers to an interesting observation Dr. Cohen makes regarding Israel’s nuclear ambiguity. Iran, Cohen says, is actually following Israel’s footsteps with its own version of opacity:

“The bitter irony is that right now, ambiguity serves the interests of Israel’s rival in the Middle East. Iran is creating its own version of ambiguity: not the concealment of its project, but rather ambiguity with regard to the distinction separating possession and non-possession of nuclear weapons. It reiterates that it has no intention of building a bomb, but that it has the right to enrich uranium, and even come close to developing [nuclear] weapons – while still remaining true to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is straddling the line, and in my opinion, Iran wants to, and can, remain for some time with the status of a state that might or might not have the bomb. Iran is a state of ambiguity.”

Read the full article here.