New Work Underway at Israeli Nuclear Site

April 2021
By Sang-Min Kim

Satellite imagery analyzed by experts at the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) in February 2021 shows significant new construction underway in the southwest portion of Israel’s main nuclear weapons complex near the city of Dimona.

The construction activity at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center (NNRC) is within the immediate vicinity of the buildings that contain the facility’s heavy-water nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant, which have been used to produce plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Israel does not publicly acknowledge possessing nuclear weapons and has not provided an explanation about the construction activities underway.

According to a Feb. 19 update of the original IPFM blog post analyzing the satellite imagery of the site, the new construction likely began in late 2018 or early 2019, but the exact intention of the newly cleared parcel, measuring 140 meters by 50 meters of excavated land, remains unclear.

Avner Cohen, a leading expert on Israel’s nuclear history and senior fellow at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, posted on Facebook on Feb. 25 that the construction may be for a new reactor or a high-energy proton accelerator system that is used to create the high neutron fluence that leads to tritium. He said the construction activities are more likely for the modernization of “existing capabilities (while rebuilding the infrastructure)” rather than the expansion of nuclear weapons capabilities.

According to the Associated Press on Feb. 27, other experts said that the purpose of the new construction activities may be related to extending the life of the reactor to allow for the continued production of tritium gas, which is used in advanced nuclear weapon designs to boost the explosive yield. Tritium must be replaced more often than the fissile material in a nuclear warhead, and the Dimona reactor, which was built in 1963, may be nearing the end of its lifespan. The AP obtained additional satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. that confirm construction at the site is ongoing.

Initially slated for closure around 2023, Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin announced plans in 2017 to extend the reactor’s operations through 2040. At the time, that announcement prompted pushback from other Israeli officials who cited concerns about the safety of extending the reactor’s lifespan.

According to the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), the official purpose behind the facility is to expand and deepen basic knowledge in the nuclear sciences and its related fields and to provide an infrastructure and foundation for the practical and economic use of nuclear energy. The facility’s history began in the 1950s with clandestine assistance from the French government, and the basic architecture of the Dimona complex has mostly remained unchanged until recent developments.

The NNRC is mainly known for the production of nuclear weapons-grade fissile material, but experts assess that Israel is not currently producing fissile material using the Dimona reactor to expand its nuclear weapons program.

The Federation of American Scientists estimates that Israel has produced enough fissile material for about 200 weapons and has assembled around 90 nondeployed nuclear warheads, which were designed for delivery by its Jericho ballistic missiles and aircraft. Israel may also have modified its Dolphin-class submarines purchased from Germany to establish a sea-based nuclear strike capability.