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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Memorandum on Reassuring Egypt on Israeli Nuclear Reactor

(February 11, 1964)

This is one of a number of documents related to U.S. concerns about Israel's nuclear program. As evident here, U.S. officials believed it would be important to pass information about Israel's program to its principal enemy at that time, Egypt, because of the fear that the Arabs might feel it necessary to go to war to prevent Israel from acquring nuclear weapons.

Memorandum From the Department of State's Executive Secretary (Read) to the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)/1/

Washington, February 11, 1964.


Need to Reassure President Nasser on the Peaceful Nature of the Dimona Reactor

Mr. Komer has requested the following information.

President Nasser had indicated that acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel would be cause for war no matter how suicidal for the Arabs. It is vital for the preservation of peace in the Near East, therefore, to reassure Nasser as to the peaceful nature of the 24-megawatt reactor Israel has just activated at Dimona.

President Kennedy explained this problem to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in 1961/2/ and obtained his agreement in principle to periodic inspections of the reactor by the United States technicians to establish its peaceful nature. Pursuant to this oral agreement, Israel did not object to our passing information on the first two Dimona visits to Nasser. During the last exchange of correspondence between President Kennedy and Prime Minister Eshkol in August 1963,/3/ however, the latter told our Ambassador he was reluctant to agree to our passing information on the reactor to Nasser, but would give the matter further consideration later. Nasser was the only exception; Eshkol did not take issue with our passing the information to other nations.

A United States inspection team visited Dimona last January 18. Its findings show the reactor was activated December 26, 1963, and has no immediate weapons making capability. The team agreed periodic semi-annual visits to the facility would be desirable to assure ourselves of its continuing peaceful purpose. A summary of the team's preliminary report is enclosed.

With the completion of the first inspection since activation, we should press Prime Minister Eshkol to agree to our discreetly passing our findings to President Nasser. We regard reassurance to Nasser about Israel's nuclear intentions and capabilities as essential to offset the news of Dimona's having gone critical. This is certain to reach Nasser soon. Coming at a time when Israel's building up of a sophisticated missile capability that may also become public, we think passage of such reassurances as we can give is the minimum to prevent some drastic United Arab Republic move to acquire a new level of Soviet weaponry.

Past experience has shown that direct intervention by the President is the most effective way to obtain Israel's cooperation on the Dimona problem. We believe firm and persistent persuasion by the President will induce Prime Minister Eshkol's compliance. We believe it desirable to continue treating the problem of reassuring Nasser orally. This permits greater flexibility and does not risk hardening either Israel's position or ours.

We recommend approval of the enclosed telegram,/4/ a copy of which we have already sent you on February 1 for clearance.

John McKesson/5/



The inspection team spent over eleven hours at the Dimona reactor site on January 18 and inspected all significant facilities. It determined that

The reactor went critical on December 26, 1963, but has operated only at low power. It was clearly designed as an experimental reactor, capable of operation at 15 to 20 per cent above design power of 26 megawatts. Operation at full power is not anticipated until late 1964.

The reactor center, valued at $60 million, is the most diversified and well equipped nuclear installation in Africa or the Middle East. Present and projected facilities will provide a capability within 1-1/2-2 years to produce 50 to 60 tons of natural uranium metal per year. This is 5 to 6 times the production rate required to support the heavy water-moderated reactor, if operated according to stated plans. Reasons given for this excessive capacity are 1) the desire to conserve essentially the full uranium production potential from phosphate operations, 2) the desire to be self sufficient, 3) the equipment installed is the minimum size available commercially for a one-step production process, and 4) the belief that uranium will increase in value.

The present fuel stockpile includes one full charge and about 10 tons in process. Discussions are underway to obtain a second core from France. It is hoped to produce the third core domestically. The fuel now on hand is subject to material control and committed to be returned to France.

Upon completion of construction a year or so hence, the reactor plant may be declassified.

The plant has no weapons making capability at present, but continuing periodic inspections are recommended./7/


/1/Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, United Arab Republic, Vol. I. Secret. Another copy of the memorandum indicates that it was drafted by H. Earle Russell, and cleared by Talbot, Jernegan, and Charles W. Thomas, Officer in Charge of Atomic Energy Affairs in the Office of International Scientific Affairs. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, AE 11-2 ISR).

/2/For a record of the conversation on May 30, 1961, between Kennedy and Ben Gurion in which they discussed this, see Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. XVII, Document 57.

/3/For text of Kennedy's letter of July 4, 1963, to Eshkol and information concerning Eshkol's reply, see ibid., vol. XVIII, Documents 289 and 317.

/4/The draft telegram is not attached, but a copy is attached to the copy of Read's memorandum cited in footnote 1 above.

/5/McKesson signed for Read above Read's typed signature.

/6/A copy of the inspection team's report is filed with a February 6 letter from Arnold R. Fritsch, Technical Assistant to the AEC Chairman, to Charles E. Johnson of the NSC Staff. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Robert W. Komer, Israel Dimona 1964).

/7/A talking paper prepared for Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Lieutenant General Marshall S. Carter states that there "appears to be little doubt that the center is now designed and intended for nuclear research" but that the reactor's capacity and fuel supply and preparation facilities "would permit the Israelis to redirect the program in the future toward achievement of a small nuclear weapons capability, should they so decide." It noted that "construction of complex and expensive plutonium recovery facilities would be needed for such a capability." The talking paper is filed as an attachment to outgoing CIA telegram 98215, January 30, which states that on January 29, Carter briefed the President on several matters, including the background and status of Dimona. (Central Intelligence Agency, Job 80-B01676R, DCI Executive Registry Files, Box 14, Folder 1, Memoranda Originated by General Carter (1 January 1964-29 February 1964)) .

Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, V. 18, Arab-Israeli Dispute 1964-1967. DC: GPO, 2000.