Satellite photographs suggest Israel’s secretive Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev desert has undergone recent construction, possibly the largest work done on the site in several decades.
Images requested from Planet Labs, Inc., and published by The Associated Press show new digging near the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center, which houses underground labs for converting the reactor’s spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium.
Israel has never admitted its nuclear weapons program and began constructing the Dimona site in the southern Negev Desert in the 1950s with help from France. Israel’s nuclear weapons program was first revealed to the world in news articles in 1960 and further confirmed in detail by a dissident nuclear technician in 1983.
The country is believed to possess about 90 nuclear warheads, according to the non-profit Arms Control Association, though that number may be higher. Along with Pakistan, South Sudan and India, Israel is not signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The purpose of the renewed work at Dimona is not yet clear, but it comes at a time when Iran continues to incrementally expand its nuclear enrichment capabilities in violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The dig appears to be some 150 meters long, 60 meters wide and potentially several stories deep. Just over a mile away, what appears to be a new storage site for spent nuclear waste appears to be under construction.
Work appears to have begun in 2019, according to some images reviewed by AP, and could be part of efforts to maintain its capabilities amid speculation that the ageing Dimona reactor could be approaching the twilight of its life. The new site could also potentially be used to produce additional plutonium, AP reported.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly opposed the current US administration’s stated plans to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, arguing it is too flawed to prevent Iran from achieving a bomb in just a few years.
Late last year, the man believed to be Iran’s top nuclear scientist was assassinated in an ambush outside Tehran. Iranian leaders have blamed Israel for the killing and vowed to retaliate.
Iranian leaders have occasionally cited Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program as a justification for obtaining their own. Leaders of the Islamic Republic have insisted nuclear weapons are religiously forbidden in Shia Islam but said they may pursue them if "cornered."