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Israel's Nuclear Albatross

Dimona: Israel’s “Little Hiroshima”

by RICHARD SILVERSTEIN

In the early 1950s, after Israel had fought a desperate war of Independence (or Nakba) in which thousands of Israelis died to ensure the founding of the State, David Ben Gurion, its first prime minister, decided the nation required an existential trump card to guarantee its survival. In 1955, he tasked his chief aide, Shimon Peres, with creating a nuclear program that would lead to building a nuclear weapon.

The most critical part of this project was creating a nuclear reactor that would manufacture the fuel to make these weapons. In 1959, Israel began construction on its reactor in Dimona. Eventually, there were thousands of workers both building the plant and, once it was constructed, working within it to build the arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons Israel is reputed to possess. An excellent short overall history of the project can be found online here.

In the early stages of research, before Dimona existed, there were accidents that exposed scientists to lethal levels of radiation. Some of them died and their names are known (though not well). Less known, is that Dimona had a series of accidents (the most serious in 1966) which exposed hundreds of its workers to toxic, and even lethal doses.

Avner Cohen, the world’s leading scholar of the Israeli nuclear program told me that in the first 20-25 years the processes used to protect workers were primitive and sloppy. Mistakes were common, often not intentionally, but because relatively little was known about the proper handling of radioactive materials. In some cases, documentation was fabricated.

This is the subject of Orna Ben Dor’s riveting two-part documentary, The Dark Secret of the Dimona Reactor (Part 1 and Part 2, both in Hebrew), produced for Israeli TV. Workers there call the nuclear plant, “Little Hiroshima,” alluding not only to the destructive power of what’s produced there, but the tragic impact that the reactor has on those who work within it.

The documentary, while it exposes many secrets and crimes of the State against its workers, is also unintentionally maddening because it deals with a subject that the nation deems justifiably opaque. For that reason, no one in the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, which runs Dimona, will speak on the record to the cameras. No journalist is allowed within the facility. Few if any records are made public regarding the functioning of the reactor. According to Ben Dor, the medical oversight of workers was a sham. They were given tests which were never processed and told they had a clean bill of health. Only to find out months or years later they were dying of cancer. The few records that are accessible happen only because of lawsuits which...

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