The Negev Nuclear Research Center (Hebrew: קריה למחקר גרעיני – נגב) is an Israeli nuclear installation located in the Negev desert, about thirteen kilometers to the south-east of the city of Dimona. The purpose of Dimona is widely assumed to be the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. Israel acknowledges the existence of the site, but refuses to either confirm or deny its suspected purpose in a policy known as nuclear ambiguity. Information about the facility remains highly classified.
An estimate based on the known power of the reactor (at least 150 MW) concluded that enough plutonium for 100 to 200 nuclear bombs could have been produced by the year 2000. The airspace over it is closed to all aircraft, and the area around it is heavily guarded and fenced off. During the Six-Day War, an Israeli missile shot down an Israeli Mirage III fighter that inadvertently flew over Dimona. In 1973 a strayed Libyan airliner was approaching the airspace above Dimona facility. Israeli fighters shot it down after failure to make it follow them, killing 108 people.
Its construction commenced in 1958, with French assistance according to the Protocol of Sèvres agreements. The complex was constructed in secret, and outside the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection regime. To maintain secrecy, French customs officials were told that the largest of the reactor components, such as the reactor tank, were part of a desalination plant bound for Latin America.  Estimates of the cost of construction vary; the only reliable figure is from Shimon Peres, who wrote in his 1995 memoir that he and David Ben-Gurion collected US $40 million, "half the price of a reactor ... [from] Israel's friends around the world."
The Dimona reactor became active some time between 1962 and 1964, and with the plutonium produced there the Israel Defense Forces most probably had their first nuclear weapons ready before the Six-Day War. When the United States intelligence community discovered the purpose of the site in the early 1960s, the U.S. government demanded that Israel agree to international inspections. Israel agreed, but on the condition that U.S., rather than International Atomic Energy Agency, inspectors be used, and that Israel would receive advance notice of all inspections. Israel is one of three nations thought to possess nuclear weapons never to have signed the NPT (others are India and Pakistan), and alongside North Korea which left the NPT.
Some claim that because Israel knew the schedule of the inspectors' visits, it was able to hide the alleged purpose of the site (manufacturing of nuclear weapons), thereby deceiving the inspectors, by installing temporary false walls and other devices before each inspection. The inspectors eventually informed the U.S. government that their inspections were useless, due to Israeli restrictions on what areas of the facility they could inspect. By 1969 the U.S. believed that Israel might have a nuclear weapon, and terminated inspections that year.
The Dimona reactor was overflown by unidentified jet aircraft before the Six Day War in 1967. These planes were thought at the time to be Egyptian Air Force MiG-21s, although a controversial 2007 book argues that they were actually Soviet MiG-25s.
In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona, fled to the United Kingdom and revealed to the media some evidence of Israel's nuclear program and explained the purposes of each building, also revealing a top-secret underground facility directly below the installation. The Mossad, Israel's secret service, sent a female agent who lured Vanunu to Italy, where he was kidnapped by Mossad agents and smuggled to Israel aboard a freighter. An Israeli court then tried him in secret on charges of treason and espionage, and sentenced him to eighteen years imprisonment. At the time of Vanunu's kidnapping, The Times reported that Israel had material for approximately 20 hydrogen bombs and 200 fission bombs. In the spring of 2004, Vanunu was released from prison, and placed under several strict restrictions, such as the denial of a passport, freedom of movement limitations and restrictions on communications with the press. Since his release, he has been rearrested and charged multiple times for violations of the terms of his release.
Recently safety concerns about this 40-year-old reactor have been reported. In 2004, as a preventive measure, Israeli authorities distributed potassium iodide anti-radiation tablets to thousands of residents living nearby.
In 2006 a group of local residents was formed due to concerns regarding serious threats to health and safety from living near the reactor.
According to a lawsuit filed in Be'er Sheva Labor Tribunal, workers at the center were subjected to human experimentation in 1998. According to Julius Malick, the worker who submitted the lawsuit, they were given drinks containing uranium without medical supervision and without obtaining written consent or warning them about risks of side effects.
In January 2012, media reports indicated that the Israel Atomic Energy Commission had decided to, at least temporarily, shut down the reactor. The site's vulnerability to attack from Iran was cited as the main reason for the decision. In October and November 2012, it was reported that Hamas had fired rockets at Dimona and/or Negev Nuclear Research Center, but the facility was not harmed or damaged in any of the attempted strikes.
- IAEA safeguards
- Israel and weapons of mass destruction
- Nuclear weapons and Israel
- Nuclear proliferation
- Soreq Nuclear Research Center
- Dimona Radar Facility
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- The Avner Cohen Collection
- Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC)
- Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East
- FAS's page about the Israeli nuclear program
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- Animated video of the Dimona facility
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