- Nuclear Weapons
- The Israeli nuclear weapons program grew out of the conviction
that the Holocaust justified any measures Israel took to ensure its survival.
- Consequently, Israel has been actively investigating
the nuclear option from its earliest days. In 1949, HEMED GIMMEL a special
unit of the IDF's Science Corps, began a two-year geological survey of
the Negev desert with an eye toward the discovery of uranium reserves.
Although no significant sources of uranium were found, recoverable amounts
were located in phosphate deposits.
- The program took another step forward with the creation
of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) in 1952. Its chairman, Ernst
David Bergmann, had long advocated an Israeli bomb as the best way to ensure
"that we shall never again be led as lambs to the slaughter."
Bergmann was also head of the Ministry of Defense's Research and Infrastructure
Division (known by its Hebrew acronym, EMET), which had taken over the
HEMED research centers (HEMED GIMMEL among them, now renamed Machon 4)
as part of a reorganization. Under Bergmann, the line between the IAEC
and EMET blurred to the point that Machon 4 functioned essentially as the
chief laboratory for the IAEC. By 1953, Machon 4 had not only perfected
a process for extracting the uranium found in the Negev, but had also developed
a new method of producing heavy water, providing Israel with an indigenous
capability to produce some of the most important nuclear materials.
- For reactor design and construction, Israel sought the
assistance of France. Nuclear cooperation between the two nations dates
back as far as early 1950's, when construction began on France's 40MWt
heavy water reactor and a chemical reprocessing plant at Marcoule. France
was a natural partner for Israel and both governments saw an independent
nuclear option as a means by which they could maintain a degree of autonomy
in the bipolar environment of the cold war.
- In the fall of 1956, France agreed to provide Israel
with an 18 MWt research reactor. However, the onset of the Suez Crisis
a few weeks later changed the situation dramatically. Following Egypt's
closure of the Suez Canal in July, France and Britain had agreed with Israel
that the latter should provoke a war with Egypt to provide the European
nations with the pretext to send in their troops as peacekeepers to occupy
and reopen the canal zone. In the wake of the Suez Crisis, the Soviet Union
made a thinly veiled threat against the three nations. This episode not
only enhanced the Israeli view that an independent nuclear capability was
needed to prevent reliance on potentially unreliable allies, but also led
to a sense of debt among French leaders that they had failed to fulfill
commitments made to a partner. French premier Guy Mollet is even quoted
as saying privately that France "owed" the bomb to Israel.
- On 3 October 1957, France and Israel signed a revised
agreement calling for France to build a 24 MWt reactor (although the cooling
systems and waste facilities were designed to handle three times that power)
and, in protocols that were not committed to paper, a chemical reprocessing
plant. This complex was constructed in secret, and outside the IAEA inspection
regime, by French and Israeli technicians at Dimona, in the Negev desert
under the leadership of Col. Manes Pratt of the IDF Ordinance Corps.
- Both the scale of the project and the secrecy involved
made the construction of Dimona a massive undertaking. A new intelligence
agency, the Office of Science Liasons,(LEKEM) was created to provide security
and intelligence for the project. At the height construction, some 1,500
Israelis some French workers were employed building Dimona. To maintain
secrecy, French customs officials were told that the largest of the reactor
components, such as the reactor tank, were part of a desalinization plant
bound for Latin America. In addition, after buying heavy water from Norway
on the condition that it not be transferred to a third country, the French
Air Force secretly flew as much as four tons of the substance to Israel.
- Trouble arose in May 1960, when France began to pressure
Israel to make the project public and to submit to international inspections
of the site, threatening to withhold the reactor fuel unless they did.
President de Gaulle was concerned that the inevitable scandal following
any revelations about French assistance with the project, especially the
chemical reprocessing plant, would have negative repercussions for France's
international position, already on shaky ground because of its war in Algeria.
- At a subsequent meeting with Ben-Gurion, de Gaulle offered
to sell Israel fighter aircraft in exchange for stopping work on the reprocessing
plant, and came away from the meeting convinced that the matter was closed.
It was not. Over the next few months, Israel worked out a compromise. France
would supply the uranium and components already placed on order and would
not insist on international inspections. In return, Israel would assure
France that they had no intention of making atomic weapons, would not reprocess
any plutonium, and would reveal the existence of the reactor, which would
be completed without French assistance. In reality, not much changed -
French contractors finished work on the reactor and reprocessing plant,
uranium fuel was delivered and the reactor went critical in 1964.
- The United States first became aware of Dimona's existence
after U-2 overflights in 1958 captured the facility's construction, but
it was not identified as a nuclear site until two years later. The complex
was variously explained as a textile plant, an agricultural station, and
a metallurgical research facility, until David Ben-Gurion stated in December
1960 that Dimona complex was a nuclear research center built for "peaceful
- There followed two decades in which the United States,
through a combination of benign neglect, erroneous analysis, and successful
Israeli deception, failed to discern first the details of Israel's nuclear
program. As early as 8 December 1960, the CIA issued a report outlining
Dimona's implications for nuclear proliferation, and the CIA station in
Tel Aviv had determined by the mid-1960s that the Israeli nuclear weapons
program was an established and irreversible fact.
- United States inspectors visited Dimona seven times during
the 1960s, but they were unable to obtain an accurate picture of the activities
carried out there, largely due to tight Israeli control over the timing
and agenda of the visits. The Israelis went so far as to install false
control room panels and to brick over elevators and hallways that accessed
certain areas of the facility. The inspectors were able to report that
there was no clear scientific research or civilian nuclear power program
justifying such a large reactor - circumstantial evidence of the Israeli
bomb program - but found no evidence of "weapons related activities"
such as the existence of a plutonium reprocessing plant.
- Although the United States government did not encourage
or approve of the Israeli nuclear program, it also did nothing to stop
it. Walworth Barbour, US ambassador to Israel from 1961-73, the bomb program's
crucial years, primarily saw his job as being to insulate the President
from facts which might compel him to act on the nuclear issue, alledgedly
saying at one point that "The President did not send me there to give
him problems. He does not want to be told any bad news." After the
1967 war, Barbour even put a stop to military attachÈs' intelligence
collection efforts around Dimona. Even when Barbour did authorize forwarding
information, as he did in 1966 when embassy staff learned that Israel was
beginning to put nuclear warheads in missiles, the message seemed to disappear
into the bureaucracy and was never acted upon.
- In early 1968, the CIA issued a report concluding that
Israel had successfully started production of uclear weapons. This estimate,
however, was based on an informal conversation between Carl Duckett, head
of the CIA's Office of Science and Technology, and Edward Teller, father
of the hydrogen bomb. Teller said that, based on conversations with friends
in the Israeli scientific and defense establishment, he had concluded that
Israel was capable of building the bomb, and that the CIA should not wait
for an Israeli test to make a final assessment because that test would
never be carried out.
- CIA estimates of the Israeli arsenal's size did not improve
with time. In 1974, Duckett estimated that Israel had between ten and twenty
nuclear weapons. The upper bound was derived from CIA speculation regarding
the number of possible Israeli targets, and not from any specific intelligence.
Because this target list was presumed to be relatively static, this remained
the official American estimate until the early 1980s.
- The actual size and composition of Israel's nuclear stockpile
is uncertain, and is the subject of various estimates and reports. It is
widely reported that Israel had two bombs in 1967, and that Prime Minister
Eshkol ordered them armed in Israel's first nuclear alert during the Six-Day
War. It is also reported that, fearing defeat in the October 1973 Yom Kippur
War, the Israelis assembled 13 twenty-kiloton atomic bombs.
- Israel could potentially have produced a few dozen nuclear
warheads in the period 1970-1980, and might have possessed 100 to 200 warheads
by the mid-1990s. In 1986 descriptions and photographs of Israeli nuclear
warheads were published in the London Sunday Times of a purported underground
bomb factory. The photographs were taken by Mordechai Vanunu, a dismissed
Israeli nuclear technician. His information led some experts to conclude
that Israel had a stockpile of 100 to 200 nuclear devices at that time.
- By the late 1990s the U.S. Intelligence Community estimated
that Israel possessed between 75-130 weapons, based on production estimates.
The stockpile would certainly include warheads for mobile Jericho-1 and
Jericho-2 missiles, as well as bombs for Israeli aircraft, and may include
other tactical nuclear weapons of various types. Some published estimates
even claimed that Israel might have as many as 400 nuclear weapons by the
late 1990s. We believe these numbers are exaggerated.
- The Dimona nuclear reactor is the source of plutonium
for Israeli nuclear weapons, and the number of nuclear weapons that could
have been produced by Israel can be estimated on the basis of the power
level of this reactor. Information made public in 1986 by Mordechai Vanunu
indicated that at that time, weapons grade plutonium was being produced
at a rate of about 40 kilograms annually. If this figure corresponded with
the steady-state capacity of the entire Dimona facility, analysts suggested
that the reactor might have a power level of at least 150 megawatts, about
twice the power level at which is was believed to be operating around 1970.
To accomodate this higher power level, analysts had suggested that Israel
had constructed an enlarged cooling system. An alternative interpretation
of the information supplied by Vanunu was that the reactor's power level
had remained at about 75 megawatts, and that the production rate of plutonium
in the early 1980s reflected a backlog of previously generated material.
- The upper and lower plausible limits on Israel's stockpile
may be bounded by considering several variables, several of which are generic
to any nuclear weapons program. The reactor may have operated an average
of between 200 and 300 days annually, and produced approximately 0.9 to
1.0 grams of plutonium for each thermal megawatt day. Israel may use between
4 and 5 kilograms of plutonium per weapon [5 kilograms is a conservative
estimate, and Vanunu reported that Israeli weapons used 4 kg].
- The key variable that is specific to Israel is the power
level of the reactor, which is variously reported to be at least 75 MWt
and possibly as high as 200 MWt. New high-resolution satellite imagery
provides important insight this matter. The imagery of the Dimona nuclear
reactor was acquired by the Public Eye Project of the Federation of American
Scientists from Space Imaging Corporation's IKONOS satellite. The cooling
towers associated with the Dimona reactor are clearly visible and identifiable
in satellite imagery. Comparison of recently acquired commercial IKONOS
imagery with declassified American CORONA reconnaissance satellite imagery
indicates that no new cooling towers were constructed in the years between
1971 and 2000. This strongly suggests that the reactor's power level has
not been increased significantly during this period. This would suggest
an annual production rate of plutonium of about 20 kilograms.
- Based on plausible upper and lower bounds of the operating
practices at the reactor, Israel could have thus produced enough plutonium
for at least 100 nuclear weapons, but probably not significantly more than
200 weapons. (This conclusion does not take into account the tons of plutonium
that has gone missing from locations around the world...and could account
for the new figure of 400 Israeli nuclear weapons projected by the USAF.
- Some type of non-nuclear test, perhaps a zero yield or
implosion test, occurred on 2 November 1966 [possibly at Al-Naqab in the
Negev]. There is no evidence that Israel has ever carried out a nuclear
test, although many observers speculated that a suspected nuclear explosion
in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979 was a joint South African-Israeli