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Vanunu Affair

VANUNU AFFAIR, case of an Israeli nuclear reactor technician who disclosed Israel's nuclear arms secrets to the London Sunday Times. Mordechai Vanunu (1954– ) was born in Morocco to a Sephardi religious family and immigrated to Israel in 1963. In 1977 he began work as a technican at Israel's nuclear research reactor at Dimonah, attached to Machon 2, where plutonium is separated from uranium. In 1985 he was laid off, moving to Australia. Prior to leaving, he took 57 photographs inside the reactor. On October 5, 1986, the Sunday Times published a three-page disclosure drawing on Vanunu's information. According to the newspaper, Israel possessed 100–200 nuclear warheads, which was much higher than most earlier estimates of the country's nuclear arsenal. It was also claimed that Israel was developing neutron and thermonuclear capabilities. The newspaper arrived at its estimate of the number of warheads on the basis of Vanunu's description of the amount of plutonium produced. Given that the fact that Israel had never confirmed whether or not it possessed the Bomb, Vanunu became the first eyewitness to the nuclear program to speak without authorization. He was abducted to Israel from Europe by Mossad agents and stood trial for espionage and treason. He was sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment, 12 of which were served in solitary confinement. In 2004 he was released from prison but prevented from leaving the country. Vanunu, who studied philosophy at Ben-Gurion University while working at the reactor, and converted to Christianity in Australia, said that he leaked the information so that the Israeli public and the world community would know about the nuclear danger. Vanunu became an icon in the international anti-nuclear movement. While the disclosure lowered incrementally the ambiguity surrounding Israel's nuclear program, it generated little international pressure on Israel, most Western governments recognizing that Israel should not be pressured on the nuclear issue at the same time it was being pressured to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Moreover, while most foreign governments adjusted their estimates of Israel's nuclear capability upwards – strengthening Israel's nuclear deterrent posture – not all countries, including the United States, went so far as to accept the Sunday Times' estimates. Vanunu was awarded a number of prizes from organizations promoting anti-nuclearism.


Y. Cohen, Whistleblowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel & Nuclear Secrecy (2005); idem, Nuclear Ambiguity: The Vanunu Affair (1992).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.