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An atomic dilemma All latest updates Should Israel close its ageing nuclear reactor? via The Economist

One of the world’s oldest nuclear plants helped build the Jewish state’s secret nuclear arsenal

ITS CUPOLA dully glinting in the sun, across kilometres of an exclusion zone in the Negev Desert, the nuclear reactor near the Israeli town of Dimona has for decades been the subject of intense speculation. Its bland official name, the Centre for Nuclear Research, belies a martial purpose. Foreign intelligence services, atomic scientists and a former Israeli employee claim that it is the source of fissile material used to make Israel’s nuclear weapons.

The country’s atomic secrets have always been closely guarded, so little is known about the plant at Dimona. However, officials at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) admitted at a scientific conference last month that the reactor is showing its age. An ultrasound inspection of the aluminium core found 1,537 small defects and cracks, they said. The lifetime of such a reactor is usually around 40 years. At 53, Dimona is one of the world’s oldest operating nuclear plants.

The reactor, which was supplied by France, was switched on 15 years after the establishment of the state of Israel. The embattled country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, insisted that Israel needed a nuclear deterrent. The programme was spearheaded by his assistant, Shimon Peres, and the main components were first activated in 1963. The government claimed that Dimona was a “textile plant”.

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Nuclear experts estimate that Israel has between 80 and 200 warheads, more than enough to deter would-be attackers. The dilemma facing Israel is whether to close the ageing reactor that helped build them. If it does, it would be unlikely to get the materials needed to build a new one, since it has never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which came into force in 1970. Yet Uzi Even, a former member of the IAEC and Dimona scientist, argues that the reactor should be shuttered. (A smaller and older reactor supplied by America in 1960 for research purposes is scheduled to be deactivated in 2018 and replaced by a particle accelerator.)

Dimona’s defenders say it has both symbolic value (as a reminder that Israel will defend itself fiercely) and practical uses, too. It is a source of materials needed to maintain nuclear warheads, such as tritium (which decays with time but could theoretically be produced or procured by other means). It is also the centre of a “secret kingdom” employing hundreds of scientists whose capabilities the country’s leaders are loath to give up.

For nearly six decades, Israel’s policy of “nuclear opacity” has served it well. Its Arab neighbours are convinced it is a nuclear power, but Israel clings to the ambiguous formulation that it “will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region”, neither acknowledging nor denying its capabilities. With powerful neighbours still openly advocating its destruction, the Jewish state will keep its doomsday weapons. But its ageing and potentially dangerous reactor? Perhaps not.

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