Eyes on Dimona

Al-Ahram Weekly #497
31 August - 6 September 2000
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM

by Omayma Abdel-Latif

It took the world many years to see pictures of Dimona, Israel's aging nuclear reactor. The plant had been shrouded in secrecy in line with a long-standing policy of concealment, outright deception and what many experts describe as "nuclear ambiguity." The rare imagery, taken on 4 July by Space Imaging Corporation's Ikonos satellite, was shown on the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The site exhibits more than seven overview images of the Dimona complex and the surrounding locations, one of which is believed to be the burial ground of low-level nuclear waste.

Nuclear experts interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly believe this is the first time that the public has access to data and images of Israel's notorious nuclear facility. Perhaps a more important revelation, however, is what the report described as "the most significant finding": Israel's nuclear weapons stockpile probably consists of between 100 to 200 nuclear weapons, contrary to previous reports that Israel might possess as many as 400 N-bombs.

"This again confirms Israel's possession of nuclear weapons," Fawzi Hammad, former head of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority, told the Weekly. "The most significant finding is that the data confirms that Israel has 200 nuclear warheads, proving that Dimona has a big inventory, even bigger than what some of the big powers may possess," Hammad said.

The images were compared to other pictures of the nuclear complex taken by a US reconnaissance satellite in 1971. The images show that modest changes have taken place in the central part of the complex over the past 30 years, but dozens of smaller buildings were built during the same period.

Another important revelation made by the report, according to Abdel-Gawad Emara, a member of the Egyptian Nuclear Safety Authority, is that the reactor is aging, given that it was built in 1963, yet it continues to be the site of intensive nuclear activity, raising concerns about its safety. The report does not mention whether measures Emara called the "life extension" of the complex -- a procedure which minimises the effects of aging and the likelihood of nuclear leakage -- had been taken.

"The danger lies in the fact that the reactor is old and has never been open to international inspection, meaning we don't know what's going on in there. Therefore, it remains a suspect nuclear threat next door," Emara said.

Sources at the FAS said the federation's main task is to monitor nuclear activities around the globe. They added that the United States has always turned a blind eye to Israel's nuclear activity provided it does not conduct nuclear tests.

It was precisely this point which topped the agenda when US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson visited Egypt two months ago. According to Hammad, Egyptian scientists and officials urged that pressure be put on Israel to reveal its nuclear facilities and allow international inspection. Richardson's response, according to Hammad, was, "We will look into the matter."

"We demanded that the nuclear complex at Dimona, in particular, be opened to inspection because of the threats it is likely to pose to neighbouring countries," Hammad told the Weekly. He believes the publication of the images and data on Dimona on the FAS site is but one step towards greater transparency on Israel's secret nuclear activities, breaking the long-standing information blackout.

The first ever material on Dimona was published by the London Sunday Times in 1986 after Israeli nuclear expert Mordechai Vanunu exposed his country's nuclear secrets. This earned him a 20-year jail sentence which he is still serving.

The latest revelation coincided with the publication in Hebrew of the book Israel and the Bomb by Avner Cohen, which caused an uproar when its English-language version first appeared two years ago in the United States. The FAS report also coincided with fresh allegations about possible radioactive contamination caused by the burial of tons of radioactive waste in a disposal area one kilometre from the main Dimona facility.

The Dimona reactor.
Photo courtesy Federation of American Scientists.

Earlier this week, however, Egyptian officials dismissed the contamination reports. Sayed Mish'al, minister of state for military production, told the press that Egypt "possesses the most up-to-date equipment for detecting any radioactive leakage" and that there is no evidence of nuclear contamination in this country.

Despite these assurances, the FAS report has reinforced previous perceptions of Israel posing a constant threat to the region due to the fact that its nuclear facilities were never opened to international inspection. A 1999 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which assesses the nuclear performance of various states, made no mention of Israel's failure to observe the agency's safeguard system. Officials at the IAEA admit they are not operating a fully effective and comprehensive safeguard system in Israel as they are in Iraq, "because the agency has no right to implement such safeguards in Israel since Israel is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)."

"It is not the weakness of the safeguard system, but rather a consequence of state sovereignty," Mohamed El-Baradei, director-general of the IAEA, said. "We are not an international nuclear police that can force its way to facilities it feels it must visit," El-Baradei said.

"All we can do is report a case of non-compliance to the UN Security Council which has the legal power to make a state fulfill its obligations."

For the past decade, President Hosni Mubarak has repeatedly stated that weapons of mass destruction should be banished from the region. There have also been repeated demands by Arab officials that Israel go public with facts and figures about its nuclear arsenal. Egypt and most other Arab countries have signed the NPT and their nuclear facilities are under regular international inspection. Egyptian officials have stated that unless Israel's nuclear situation is rectified the prospect of reaching a regional security agreement is very dim.

Egypt's nuclear experts call for harsher measures to make Israel comply, such as diplomatic pressure, trade restrictions, air transport and economic sanctions. However, a high-ranking official holds a different view. Answering questions by university students, Osama El-Baz, President Mubarak's political adviser, said that a full and comprehensive peace "is the only deterrent to counter Israel's possession of a nuclear arsenal. Egypt will not accept that Israel remains the only nuclear power in the region," he said.