Archive for February 26, 2021

A soccer field-sized dig, stories deep: Israel expands Dimona nuclear facility

February 26, 2021


Reactor appears to be getting most extensive new construction work in decades, satellite photos show; reason unclear

By JON GAMBRELL25 February 2021, 11:22 am  4T

This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

his Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A secretive Israeli nuclear facility, supposedly at the center of the nation’s undeclared atomic weapons program, is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show.

A dig about the size of a soccer field and likely several stories deep now sits just meters from the aging reactor at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona. The facility is already home to decades-old underground laboratories that, according to foreign reports, reprocess the reactor’s spent rods to obtain weapons-grade plutonium for Israel’s nuclear bomb program.

What the construction is for, however, remains unclear. The Israeli government did not respond to detailed questions from the AP about the work. Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons. It is among just four countries that have never joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a landmark international accord meant to stop the spread of nuclear arms.

The construction comes as Israel — under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — maintains its scathing criticism of Iran’s nuclear program, which remains under the watch of United Nations inspectors unlike its own. That has renewed calls among experts for Israel to publicly declare details of its program.This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

What “the Israeli government is doing at this secret nuclear weapons plant is something for the Israeli government to come clean about,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

With French assistance, Israel began secretly building the nuclear site in the late 1950s in empty desert near Dimona, a city some 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Jerusalem. It hid the military purpose of the site for years from America, now Israel’s chief ally, even referring to it as a textile factory.

With plutonium from Dimona, Israel is widely believed to have become one of only nine nuclear-armed countries in the world. Given the secrecy surrounding its program, it remains unclear how many weapons it possesses. Analysts estimate Israel has material for at least 80 bombs. Those weapons likely could be delivered by land-based ballistic missiles, fighter jets or submarines.

For decades, the Dimona facility’s layout has remained the same. However, last week, the International Panel on Fissile Materials at Princeton University noted it had seen “significant new construction” at the site via commercially available satellite photos, though few details could be made out.View of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, southern Israel, August 13, 2016. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Satellite images captured Monday by Planet Labs Inc. after a request from the AP provide the clearest view yet of the activity. Just southwest of the reactor, workers have dug a hole some 150 meters (165 yards) long and 60 meters (65 yards) wide. Tailings from the dig can be seen next to the site. A trench some 330 meters (360 yards) runs near the dig.

Some 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) west of the reactor, boxes are stacked in two rectangular holes that appear to have concrete bases. Tailings from the dig can be seen nearby. Similar concrete pads are often used to entomb nuclear waste.This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Other images from Planet Labs suggest the dig near the reactor began in early 2019 and has progressed slowly since then.

Analysts who spoke to the AP offered several suggestions about what could be happening there.

The center’s heavy-water reactor has been operational since the 1960s, far longer than most reactors of the same era. That raises both effectiveness and safety questions. In 2004, Israeli soldiers even began handing out iodine pills in Dimona in case of a radioactive leak from the facility. Iodine helps block the body from absorbing radiation.This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Those safety concerns could see authorities decommission or otherwise retrofit the reactor, analysts say.

“I believe that the Israeli government is concerned to preserve and maintain the nation’s current nuclear capabilities,” said Avner Cohen, a professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who has written extensively on Dimona.

“If indeed the Dimona reactor is getting closer to decommissioned, as I believe it is, one would expect Israel to make sure that certain functions of the reactor, which are still indispensable, will be fully replaced.”This Sept. 29, 1971, spy satellite photograph, later declassified by the US government, shows what now is known as the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. (US Center for Earth Resources Observation and Science/US Geological Survey, via AP)

Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, suggested Israel may want to produce more tritium, a relatively faster-decaying radioactive byproduct used to boost the explosive yield of some nuclear warheads. It also could want fresh plutonium “to replace or extend the life of warheads already in the Israeli nuclear arsenal,” he added.

A strategy of opacity

Israel built its nuclear weapons as it faced several wars with its Arab neighbors since its founding in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust. An atomic weapons program, even undeclared, provided it an edge to deter enemies.

As Shimon Peres, who led the nuclear program and later served as prime minister and president of Israel, said in 1998: “We have built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima, but to have an Oslo,” referring to the first US nuclear bomb drop in World War II and to Israel’s efforts to reach a peace deal with Palestinians.

Former Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

But Israel’s strategy of opacity also draws criticism from opponents. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seized on the work at Dimona this week as his country prepared to limit access by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency amid tensions with the West over its collapsing 2015 nuclear deal.

“Any talk about concern about Iran’s nuclear program is absolute nonsense,” Zarif told Iranian state television’s English-language arm Press TV. “Let’s be clear on that: It’s hypocrisy.”

The timing of the Dimona construction surprised Valerie Lincy, executive director of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

“I think the most puzzling thing is… you have a country that is very aware of the power of satellite imagery and particularly the way proliferation targets are monitored using that imagery,” Lincy said. “In Israel, you have one known nuclear target for monitoring, which is the Dimona reactor. So you would think that anything that they wanted to keep under the radar would be kept under the radar.”

In the 1960s, Israel used its claims about adversary Egypt’s missile and nuclear efforts to divert attention from its work at Dimona — and may choose to do the same with Iran now.

“If you’re Israel and you are going to have to undertake a major construction project at Dimona that will draw attention, that’s probably the time that you would scream the most about the Iranians,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor also teaching nonproliferation issues at Middlebury.

US strikes Iran-backed fighters in Syria, in 1st military action under Biden

February 26, 2021


Pentagon says airstrikes ‘destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point,’ are retaliation for attacks on American targets in Iraq; war monitor claims 17 killed

By AGENCIES and TOI STAFFToday, 2:15 am  1

Illustrative: Explosions are seen in the Syrian town of Salamiyah on June 24 after an airstrike (video screenshot)

Illustrative: Explosions are seen in the Syrian town of Salamiyah on June 24 after an airstrike (video screenshot)

WASHINGTON — The United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups. The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

The airstrikes were the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq.

“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington. Speaking shortly after the airstrikes, he added, “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition personnel.

Austin said he recommended the action to Biden.

“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”

Then Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP)

Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US action was a “proportionate military response” taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said. “At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

Kirby said the US airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian- backed militant groups,” including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. The US has blamed Kataib Hezbollah for numerous attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq in the past.

Further details were not immediately available.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 17 people were killed after the strike hit three trucks loaded with munitions coming from Iraq near the Syrian city of Bukamal. The British-based war monitor of uncertain funding has regularly been accused by Syrian war analysts of inflating casualty numbers, as well as inventing them wholesale.

The group said all the dead were from Iraq’s state-sponsored Hashed al-Shaabi force, the umbrella group over many small militias that have ties to Iran.

Biden administration officials condemned the February 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that targeted US personnel or facilities in Iraq.

Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating the February 15 attack.

“Right now, we’re not able to give you a certain attribution as to who was behind these attacks, what groups, and I’m not going to get into the tactical details of every bit of weaponry used here,” Kirby said. “Let’s let the investigations complete and conclude, and then when we have more to say, we will.”

A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the February 15 attack. A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone appeared to target the US  Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.

Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade.

The frequency of attacks by Shiite militia groups against US targets in Iraq diminished late last year ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, though now Iran is pressing America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal. The US under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.

Trump had said the death of a US contractor would be a red line and provoke US escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.

US forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.REA