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Israel States Strong Interest in Nuclear Energy
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Daniel Horner

Israel’s infrastructure minister last month strongly reaffirmed his country’s interest in pursuing a nuclear power program and suggested such a program could be “an area for regional cooperation.”

Uzi Landau made the comments March 9 at a conference in Paris.

Observers agree that, to build a reactor on its territory, Israel would need to import at least some key components. Under the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Israel is barred from receiving such imports because it has nuclear facilities that are not safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In his prepared remarks for the Paris meeting, Landau said nuclear power represents “[r]eliable, environmentally clean and high efficiency electricity.” Israel “sees itself as eligible as any other country [for] the peaceful uses of nuclear energy: it has the need, the required scientific and technical infrastructure and know-how and certainly the motivation to engage in such [a] project,” he said.

In 2008 the NSG made an exception to its guidelines for India, lifting a long-standing ban on nuclear exports to a country that conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 and allows IAEA inspections of only some of its nuclear facilities. That initiative was led by the United States, which made a similar exception to its domestic law.

Bush administration officials said the deal was a unique exception for India and explicitly ruled out similar arrangements for Israel and Pakistan, the other two nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) holdouts. However, a congressional source recalled last month that “the Israelis have not been shy” about “linking themselves” to the India deal by suggesting they should receive similar treatment. The source said he was not aware of any recent Israeli effort to make that case. Other sources in Israel and the United States also said they knew of no such effort.

In a March 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a U.S. official indicated that no deal was in the offing. “All nuclear-related technical exchanges between the U.S. and Israel are restricted by U.S. law, which does not permit broad nuclear cooperation with Israel,” she said. She noted that the United States does not have a nuclear cooperation agreement with Israel and said “there is no discussion of negotiating one.”

Real Interest

According to an Israeli source, the country’s “interest in nuclear energy has been and remains real,” and its nonproliferation credentials are “as good as India’s or better.”

In his Paris remarks, Landau said, “Naturally, all nuclear power reactors to be built in Israel will be subject to international safeguards as well as appropriate physical protection measures.” He also said it is “imperative to minimize proliferation risks—especially those associated with the nuclear fuel cycle technologies.”

The Israeli source said he thought Israel would be willing to import fresh fuel for the reactor and send the spent fuel out of the country. This so-called cradle-to-grave approach has been widely supported by nonproliferation advocates and many political leaders as a way to lessen proliferation concerns about countries that are launching nuclear power programs. Such arrangements are designed to give countries an incentive to refrain from pursuing uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing programs.

Israel has an unsafeguarded reactor and reprocessing plant at the Dimona site, where the country is widely believed to have produced the plutonium for its nuclear arsenal.

Recent media reports have said Israel has been in discussions with France and Jordan about a joint reactor project at a site in the latter. One potential advantage of that route is that it might allow Israel to sidestep the NSG ban.

In a March 23 interview, Fred McGoldrick, a former State Department official who handled nuclear trade and nonproliferation issues, said an arrangement under which a Jordanian reactor was supplying electricity to Israel “technically” would “probably not violate the NSG guidelines but it would not be faithful to their intent.” Even though Israel would not have access to nuclear exports from NSG members, it would be getting “the benefits of nuclear energy without making the commitments” that NSG recipients are required to make, he said.

A similar plan was floated in the mid-1980s, and the United States “killed it because it would have been an obvious circumvention of our full-scope safeguards requirements,” he said.

The Israeli source and others said there were several potential obstacles to a joint reactor project built in Jordan. There are “multiple layers of security and politics” that would have to be addressed, the Israeli source said. He said that an overarching question is, “Can you be confident the Jordanians would not only initially commit to but would also be able to keep on supplying Israel energy even if the relationship would become politically sour?” Another issue is that Jordanian trade unions, which support a boycott of Israel, probably would oppose the project, he said.

The Associated Press quoted Khaled Toukan, the head of Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission, as saying, “It’s too early to talk about any regional cooperation with Israel before a solution is found to the Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts.”

Even though Landau indicated a preference for collaborative projects, Israel would have to “weigh an indigenous option,” the Israeli source said.

In his remarks, Landau recalled that Israel in the 1970s had chosen a site called Shivta in the NegevDesert and prepared some of the preliminary safety and security documentation. “Israel has kept the site and the necessary scientific and technical infrastructure for the safe and reliable operation of the future nuclear power plant,” he said.

Israel is one of about a dozen Middle Eastern countries that have expressed an interest in nuclear energy.

Criteria-Based Approach

The United States was “myopic” in making the U.S. and NSG exemptions specific to India rather than adopting a so-called criteria-based approach that also would have made Israel and Pakistan potentially eligible, the Israeli source said. Nuclear suppliers should establish a principle of “the harder you try, the more you qualify for,” he said. Such an approach would encourage the non-NPT states to come closer to the nuclear mainstream and would help raise the levels of security, safety, and nonproliferation adherence in those countries, he said.

Since the U.S.-Indian deal, Pakistan has repeatedly indicated it would like a similar arrangement. It would be “logical” to hold open the possibility of nuclear trade with Pakistan so as not to alienate Islamabad, the Israeli source said.