Israel seeks civilian nuclear power

Getty Images News Back in February, the director-general of the Israel Electric Corporation, Uri Ben-Nun, said that the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission is “mulling the construction of a nuclear power plant in Israel.” It may be surprising that Israel has never built a civilian nuclear power plant, since it has long been assumed to have ...

603561_070305_dimona_05.jpg
603561_070305_dimona_05.jpg

Getty Images News

Back in February, the director-general of the Israel Electric Corporation, Uri Ben-Nun, said that the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission is "mulling the construction of a nuclear power plant in Israel."

It may be surprising that Israel has never built a civilian nuclear power plant, since it has long been assumed to have a sophisticated nuclear weapons program. All other countries with advanced nuclear weapons programs also have substantial civilian nuclear power programs. Add Israel's uniquely pressing need for energy independence and the question becomes even more puzzling: Why hasn't this already happened?

Getty Images News

Back in February, the director-general of the Israel Electric Corporation, Uri Ben-Nun, said that the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission is “mulling the construction of a nuclear power plant in Israel.”

It may be surprising that Israel has never built a civilian nuclear power plant, since it has long been assumed to have a sophisticated nuclear weapons program. All other countries with advanced nuclear weapons programs also have substantial civilian nuclear power programs. Add Israel’s uniquely pressing need for energy independence and the question becomes even more puzzling: Why hasn’t this already happened?

Geopolitics, mostly. According to a report by Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, “Israel has flirted with nuclear power three times, beginning in 1976, but security concerns and the international environment have thus far prevented such a project’s completion.” For example, nuclear materials have been hard for Israel to acquire (since it has not signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) and a hostile neighbor could have attacked the plant.

The international environment has changed, though. Nuclear power is becoming more attractive worldwide because it does not generate greenhouse gases. While some Gulf States had been calling for a “nuclear-free zone” in the region, now Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interest in developing nuclear power. And Israel’s military preeminence in the region makes an attack on any nuclear power plant much less likely today.

Most important for Israel, though, is the recent U.S.-India deal on nuclear cooperation. India, like Israel, never signed the NPT but has nuclear weapons. They, too, had difficulty buying nuclear fuel abroad, but the new deal will allow the United States to sell nuclear materials to India for its civilian program. This may open the door for Israel in the future.

While Israel won’t be building civilian nuclear reactors tomorrow, Stratfor is probably right that these changes “make an Israeli civilian nuclear power program more likely than ever before.”

Eric Hundman is a science fellow at the Center for Defense Information. His research focuses on emerging technology, terrorism and nuclear policy, including the conventionalization of nuclear forces. He contributes a series of posts for Passport on nuclear technology called “Nuke Notes.”

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