Background & Overview
(Updated July 2013)
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.
- The Sinai Crisis
- U.S. Spires on Dimona
- Israel's First Bomb
- Vanunu Reveals Secrets
- Sources & Resources
In 1949, HEMED GIMMEL, a special
unit of the IDF 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
1950s, 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 2013, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducted a thorough safety inspection of the Soreq Nuclear Research Institute and found the facility to be safe. While the Soreq facility is under IAEA supervision and is visited biannually by agency supervisors, this inspection marked the first time international nuclear safety experts had examined the Soreq facility for exams of operational procedures such as organizational structure and emergency procedures. Israel's Dimona facility is not under IAEA supervision - a long-standing IAEA-recognized policy - yet Israel is planning a comprehensive safety examination at its other nuclear center.
The Sinai Crisis
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
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
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.
U.S. Spies On Dimona
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 purposes."
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
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.
Israel's First Bomb
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.
Vanunu Reveals Secrets
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
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
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
Sources and Resources
The Third Temple's Holy Of Holies: Israel's Nuclear
Weapons Warner D. Farr, LTC, U.S. Army, September 1999
Bomb That Never Is
by Avner Cohen, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,
May/June 2000, Vol 56, No. 3 pp.22-23
Israel and the Bomb. Avner Cohen has provides
a detailed account of of the political aspects of Israel's nuclear
history that draws on thousands of American and Israeli government
documents-most of them recently declassified and never before cited-and
more than one hundred interviews with key individuals who played
important roles in this story.
Obsessive secrecy undermines democracy By Reuven
Pedatzur Ha'aretz. Tuesday, August 8, 2000 -- Cohen published
"Israel and the Bomb" in the United States, and a Hebrew translation
of the book has appeared here. In the eyes of the defense establishment,
Cohen has committed a double sin.
Fighting to preserve the tattered veil of secrecy By Ronen Bergman The publication of Dr. Avner Cohen's book
and of the Vanunu trial transcripts set off alarm bells for the
Defense Ministry's chief of security, who is striving to protect
the traditional opacity regarding Israel's nuclear affairs.
Blast, from the past to the present By Yirmiyahu
Yovel Ha'aretz. 28 July 2000 -- If, in the context of the
peace agreements and talks with the United States, Israel were to
confirm its nuclear capability - while committing itself to no nuclear
testing and pledging to build its defense system on conventional
weapons as in the past - maybe then it might achieve at least de
facto recognition, if not international legitimacy, for its nuclear
weaponry, to be used only as a "last resort" and a tool for safeguarding
peace after Israel withdraws.
Israel The Nuclear Potential of Individual
Countries Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Problems
of Extension Appendix 2 Russian Federation Foreign Intelligence
Service 6 April 1995
The Samson Option. Israel's Nuclear Arsenal
and American Foreign Policy Seymour M Hersh, [New York: Random House,
of American Scientists
Gili Cohen, "IAEA rules Israel's Soreq nuclear reactor safe in first-ever international inspection,"
Haaretz (July 23, 2013).