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The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Letters to the Editor

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Dimona: Close It for Peace, Not Radiation Danger

Israel's nuclear weapons program is indeed a troublesome catalyst in the Middle Eastern political cauldron, and closing its plutonium-production reactor is a worthy goal. But in rhetorically advising that Israel shut down its Dimona nuclear reactor ("Should Israel Close Dimona?" May 2008), Bennett Ramberg advances a misleading and ultimately counterproductive argument that the facility poses a latent radiological hazard to the region.

Ramberg's article includes several technically untenable assertions about radiological dispersion and consequences.

In the first place, Ramberg's underlying assumptions are subject to a huge range of uncertainty regarding the reactor's accessible radioactive inventory.

Because the reactor has been operative for some 40 years, it is indeed likely (as Ramberg suggests) that Israel has all the plutonium and tritium it needs by now. In that case, the reactor already might have been shut down with its fuel removed, and there would no longer be any meaningful prospect that it could disperse radioactivity.

Another reasonable possibility might be that the reactor is now on standby, consequently with a low radioactive inventory. If it is still in operation, it should be well defended and on alert for quick shutdown, despite Ramberg's experience-based apprehension. Moreover, the internal shielding could well have been reinforced as a result of Israel learning from its own experience in launching attacks against known or suspected nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria.

Second, Ramberg's estimated radiological consequences are derived by selecting only the most probative data. The recent International Chernobyl Forum report has reckoned no more than 4,000 premature cancer-related deaths after the Chernobyl accident, but it is just as likely that none at all will result. In any event, two decades later, not even one Chernobyl radiation-induced cancer death has actually been attributably diagnosed.

The comparatively few imputed thyroid cancers among juveniles are such a small fraction of those exposed that they could simply reflect additional diagnostic focus after the Chernobyl accident. Even if the worst Dimona nuclear radiation-release scenario hypothesized by Ramberg did occur, it is quite unlikely that a palpable number of viable cancers would be induced.

The projected physical consequences of radioactivity dispersion from a bombed-out Dimona are on immaterial and tenuous grounds, as is the exemplar cited of so-called dirty bombs (radiological-dispersion devices).

One more dissent: it is unjustifiably apprehensive to suggest that Iran's Bushehr "atomic power plant" could "serve as a plutonium mine for nuclear weapons" without taking into account its functional characteristics and its operation under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Too many nuclear policies are already based on unmaterialized premises and the type of defective analyses cited by Ramberg.

Rather than leaning on fragile technical arguments, Ramberg could have pointed out simply that the nuclear-weapon status of Israel has outlived the role of giving its citizens peace of mind. It is now an albatross on Middle Eastern harmony and resolution. As he wisely advises, unsafeguarded nuclear facilities have the potential of being especially vulnerable as long as regional differences are unresolved.


Alexander DeVolpi is an arms control expert and nuclear physicist, retired from Argonne National Laboratory.


Bennett Ramberg Responds:

Alexander DeVolpi argues that the boundaries of uncertainty regarding the radiological consequences from an attack on Dimona should remove this risk as a criterion for closing the plant. This contention conflicts with his concession that, were Dimona functioning-he presents no evidence to the contrary-Israel needs to beef up security, presumably to protect against a discharge. Given the fact that closure is the certain option to eliminate the problem, this makes his argument, not mine, "counterproductive."

DeVolpi's solutions-well defending the plant, improving reactor shielding, quick shutdown-butt against difficulties. Israel's ballistic missile defenses have a record of repeated failure. Upgrading Dimona's containment will not suffice against increasingly lethal munitions and the vulnerability of vital external lifelines such as off-site power, which is required to keep the reactor core cooled.

I am also confused by DeVolpi's statement that if the plant were functioning, "it should be well defended and on alert for quick shutdown, despite Ramberg's experience-based apprehension." This tack requires forewarning, which has not characterized reactor strikes in the Middle East. Even then, shutdown will reduce, not eliminate, releases.

DeVolpi then attempts to cast further doubt by citing Chernobyl's evident failure to kill large populations. However, try as he may, he cannot explain away the thousands of thyroid cancers that emerged. The peer-reviewed medical literature repeatedly states that only the accident's radioiodine emission could prompt the spike of this rare disease.

Speculating that Chernobyl may not produce future cancer fatalities-and by analogy that Dimona would not either-DeVolpi walks away from his article in the September/October 2006 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which projected 4,000 fatalities as the "best estimate." This excludes best projections of 5,000 additional fatalities beyond the former Soviet Union's most contaminated zones, 16,000 in Europe, and many thousands more who may come down with but survive cancer. That said, DeVolpi and I can agree, thyroid cancers aside, a Dimona discharge, were it to produce a light footprint, may not evidence fatal cancers given the impossibility of distinguishing a reactor-induced cancer from other sources.

This raises the question why then do I insist on closing Dimona on radiological grounds absent high fatalities? As a radiological sitting duck-by analogy, a giant dirty bomb-Dimona is more a weapon of mass disruption than destruction. Justified or not, even light nuclear contamination generates fear.

DeVolpi may find this irrational, but he cannot avoid the fact that fear generated by Chernobyl, some justifiable, contributed to enormous economic costs and lingering psychological traumatization impacting large populations. I conclude that similar serious consequences may likewise emerge in Israel, which only Dimona's closure can eliminate. Furthermore, its shuttering may reduce regional nuclear tensions.

One final comment: DeVolpi contends that I unjustifiably claimed that Bushehr could become a plutonium mine. Should Iran bolt from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, this concern could become a reality, but I grant that Gilinsky et al., upon whom I relied, may overstate the risk. In sum, I invite the readers of Arms Control Today to examine my carefully crafted article and come to their own conclusions.


Bennett Ramberg served in the Department of State in the George H. W. Bush administration and is author of Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy: An Unrecognized Military Peril (1984).


Additional NPT Milestones

The very valuable timeline "The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: The Past 40 Years" (June 2008) has inspired me to suggest the addition of two more milestones in the history of the NPT.

1. The very first active nuclear nonproliferation measure was undertaken before the first nuclear explosion in 1945. During the Second World War, both Germany and the United States were working to develop an atomic bomb. Germany was producing heavy water (D2O) at a chemical plant in occupied Norway when Norwegian resistance fighters late at night on February 27, 1943, successfully sabotaged the production. That operation was followed by several others. The facility became effectively closed for the duration of the war, and Germany never did fabricate a nuclear explosive device.

2. Almost unnoticed, the NPT states-parties decided in 1985 that the treaty should be implemented "under any circumstances," i.e., also in wartime.

During the 1968 U.S. ratification process, Secretary of State Dean Rusk explained to the U.S. Senate that the NPT "does not deal with arrangements for deployment of nuclear weapons within Allied territory, as these do not involve any transfer of nuclear weapons or control over them unless and until a decision were made to go to war, at which time the treaty would no longer be controlling." This statement, indicating an interpretation that the NPT would enter out of force in case of war, reflected a previously agreed position within the NATO alliance. In 1985, the parties of the third NPT review conference unanimously adopted a final declaration stating, inter alia, that "the Conference agreed that the strict observance of the terms of Articles I and II remains central to achieving the shared objectives of preventing under any circumstances (emphasis added) the further proliferation of nuclear weapons and preserving the Treaty's vital contribution to peace and security, including the peace and security of non-parties," thus stating the opposite interpretation. This same interpretation was repeated in the unanimously adopted final declaration of the NPT review conference in 2000.

The final declarations of the 1985 and the 2000 review conferences are politically rather than legally binding, as is the 1968 United States (and NATO) statement of interpretation.

Obviously Mr. Rusk's statement in 1968 referred to the East-West conflict at that time and the internal NATO command structure. The end of the Cold War and the prospects for future local wars now makes the more restrictive 1985 interpretation the only reasonable one. In 1991 the UN Security Council did indeed confirm the 1985 approach in its resolution on Iraq. The opposite interpretation would be beyond reason-that Iraq's involvement first in a war with Iran and later in the Persian Gulf War would have entitled her to acquire nuclear weapons. Or that India and Pakistan could accede to the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states but continue their nuclear weapons programs, claiming that there is a war going on in Kashmir.


Jan Prawitz is a senior research associate emeritus at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.


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