Dimona: Israel’s ‘Little Hiroshima’ via Middle East Eye

In the early 1950s, after Israel had fought a desperate war of independence in which thousands of Israelis died to ensure the founding of the state, David Ben Gurion, its first prime minister, decided the nation required an existential trump card to guarantee its survival. In 1955, he tasked his chief aide, Shimon Peres, with creating a nuclear programme that would lead to building a nuclear weapon.

The most critical part of this project was creating a nuclear reactor that would manufacture the fuel to make these weapons. In 1959, Israel began construction on its reactor in Dimona. Eventually, there were thousands of workers both building the plant and, once it was constructed, working within it to build the arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons Israel is reputed to possess. An excellent short overall history of the project can be found online.

In the early stages of research, before Dimona existed, there were accidents that exposed scientists to lethal levels of radiation. Some of them died and their names are known (though not well). Less known is that Dimona had a series of accidents – the most serious in 1966 – that exposed hundreds of its workers to similarly lethal doses.


This is the subject of Orna Ben Dor’s riveting two-part documentary, The Dark Secret of the Dimona Reactor (Part 1 and Part 2, both in Hebrew), produced for Israeli TV. Workers there call the nuclear plant “Little Hiroshima,” alluding not only to the destructive power of what’s produced there, but the tragic impact that the reactor has on those who work within it.

The documentary, while it exposes many secrets and crimes of the state against its workers, is also unintentionally maddening because it deals with a subject that the nation deems justifiably opaque. For that reason, no one in the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, which runs Dimona, will speak on the record to the cameras. No journalist is allowed within the facility. Few if any records are made public regarding the functioning of the reactor.


Treated as garbage

The “lowest of the low” (on the hierarchical totem-pole) were the nuclear technicians, the clean-up workers sent in to mop up after equipment malfunctions. Often, they were “children” of the reactor: raised in the town, attending the technical high school at the plant that taught them how to maintain it and its equipment. They faced the most danger. Yet no one warned them. They did their jobs anonymously. But when they got sick, the state tossed them overboard.  One worker who was Mizrahi Jew was told that his cancer wasn’t the result of his work at Dimona, but rather his Moroccan origin. His Sephardi genes somehow caused his illness. If it was only the racism of this claim that was involved it would be bad enough. But to use racism to cover up state crimes against its citizens is unforgivable.

The tragedy is that the victims themselves, through their own innate sense of patriotism, refuse to understand the contradiction inherent in what they demand of the state. Israel itself is a kingdom of secrets. Dimona is a secret within a secret; the holy of holies of Israel’s nuclear religion. You cannot unravel the mysteries and expose the lies and crimes unless you tear the veil away. To do this, you must force Israel to end the opacity, end the secrecy. But no one in a position of power is willing to do this.


Israel’s ‘KGB state’

Avner Cohen also faults the documentary producer for not confronting Israeli nuclear bureaucrats more aggressively and demanding that they reply to the accusations. He argues in the review he wrote for Haaretz’s Hebrew edition that Israel must force those who devise Israel’s nuclear policy to confront uncomfortable questions. Only in this way can change happen.

The secrecy of the nuclear programme, one interviewee calls it a “KGB state,” goes hand in hand with the Israel’s overall opacity around all manner of security issues. It’s not surprising that Israel has put its fate in the hands of a few nuclear bureaucrats like those who run Dimona, because it runs its overall military apparatus in the same way. No civilian oversight to speak of. The generals get what they want. All in the name of protecting the state. It’s a devil’s bargain.

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