NOTE: Middle East Eye just published my latest piece which deals with the Dimona construction and Israel’s nuclear weapons program in a broader regional context. Please give it a read and post it on social media.
Israel has mounted a massive new construction project at its Dimona nuclear reactor facility. A US NGO has obtained photos of the excavation work as did AP. Avner Cohen, Israel’s pre-eminent expert on the country’s nuclear weapons program, has featured even higher resolution versions of the images in a Facebook post. He also offers some interesting theories about the purpose of the new project. Here is my translation:
This is a high resolution (50-75cm) image of the massive excavation works at the facility [Dimona]. This image was captured on February 22nd by the Planet Labs satellite and commissioned by AP.
I sat today on Zoom with the best satellite image interpreter we have here at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies. My former student has a terrific eye for reading satellite images. He examined this one and compared it to tens of previous images of the reactor, all of which were taken by Planet Labs from the beginning of 2018…
In his opinion, the project began earlier than what has been reported thus far, apparently around the summer of 2018. It began with building a long tunnel and taking down the inner fence at the facility, which surrounded the reactor. He immediately recognized the tunnel because he has seen precisely the same type at sites in North Korea, which is his field of expertise. He identified no other tunnels at the compound. Why would Israel dig tunnels at the nuclear site? Certainly not [to protect from] the climate or the Negev heat. In his opinion, the purpose of a tunnel of this type is to conceal the identification of workers and equipment at the excavation site.
The mound of dirt on the left, the height of a large multi-story building, was visible from the start of the construction. The giant pit, whose depth is hard to measure from the images, is the size of a soccer field (160 meters long and 60 meters wide). The digging, in his opinion, is going slowly. It’s very possible, he adds, that it’s done mainly or solely at night, when satellite images cannot be captured. Besides the central mountain of dirt there are also other piles of dirt. It’s quite possible that this dirt will be poured on top of the building when its construction is completed.
The satellite images of the nuclear plant reveal that it has hardly changed from when the original plan was completed there near the end of the 1960s or beginning of the 1970s. There has been only one substantial building added to the complex from when it was founded till today…Therefore, the current excavation is a substantial one, which appears to be the first attempt after 50 years leading to a modernization of the nuclear facility’s infrastructure.
It’s not possible to determine from the image what the large hole is meant to house. It’s only possible to guess. Possibly, this is the beginning of the building of a new modern reactor, which would replace the original French one, which is close to retirement. Or perhaps Israel decided to build a particle accelerator for the production of tritium. Or maybe something else entirely?
My own feeling, without a bit of knowledge of the real circumstances, is that it involves the modernization of what already exists–a commitment to modernize existing capabilities which have reached retirement age–and not the expansion or enhancement of nuclear activity.