Israel: Nuclear Weapons
Israel: Nuclear Weapons
FAS - USA
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 purposes."
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.
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.
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 attachés'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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].
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.
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.
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 test.