Joshua PollackPlaying Peek-A-Boo With Nuclear Opacity

A picture is worth… You already know the saying. But what’s a picture worth when it comes without a caption?

This may sound like an off-brand Zen koan, but it’s actually the windup to a small exercise in decoding ambiguous nuclear signaling.

Earlier this month, Amir Mizroch grabbed a rather unusual screen image from a TV news segment on Israel’s Channel One. It’s a still photo of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu visiting the Dimona nuclear complex in southern Israel.

This may well be the first new interior photo from Dimona to appear in the news media since The Sunday Times printed a few in 1986. It’s reproduced below.

Yes, there he is in a bunny suit, hand extended toward a mass of pipes and cylinders, bringing to mind nothing so much as a bigger, beardless, graying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doing his annual runway strut on Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day.

To be sure, there is a caption right there in the chyron, which Mizroch helpfully translates as, “The Prime Minister visits the Dimona nuclear reactor, receives briefing on the scientific programs undertaken there.”

Now, after all the hullaballoo lately over nuclear opacity, you have to wonder what the normally talkative Netanyahu aims to accomplish by this pantomime. He seems to be flirtatiously parting the veil.

Let’s flesh out the picture a little more. A few days after the news broadcast, the Prime Minister visited Hatzerim Air Base in the company of top defense ministry and military officials, where—among other things—he sat in the cockpit of an extended-range F-15I fighter-bomber, looking for all the world like a kid at an airshow. (You can watch him try on the helmet in this video.)

So now we have a full-blown game of charades going. Sounds like… fissile material… Rhymes with… airstrike… Wait! I think I have the answer: You’re running out of patience on Iran.

Perhaps needless to say, I’m wondering if the visit to Dimona was such a great idea. Nuclear opacity has its ups and downs, but chief among its virtues is the obstacle it poses to the production of rhetorical nuclear threats, even in a retaliatory vein. As U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo learned a few years ago, that sort of thing has a way of not working out too well. Trying to transmit roughly the same message by means of an interpretive dance honors the letter more than the spirit of opacity, and invites ugly misunderstandings. It’s just too clever by half.

But let’s leave aside quibbles and contentions. This is a wonky site, and the Dimona happy snap is nothing if not wonkporn. Can anyone out there identify the equipment in the background of the shot? It appears to be a series of fractionating columns or mixer-settlers. I don’t really know. One possibility is shown to the right: ion exchangers involved in the reprocessing of plutonium. (The image and caption are lifted from Chapter 9 of the DOE Annex 3 handbook.)

If that tentative identification is correct, then the secret decoder ring reveals the following message: Remember… that… we’ve… got… the… Bomb…


  1. kme

    And yet those F15s would still have to fly through US-controlled airspace. For now.

  2. anon

    I love a hawk. No pussy-footing around while muttering I’ll huff & I’ll puff.

  3. blowback (History)

    But do they really?

    Every country that is supposed to have the nuclear bomb has definitely performed independent successful tests, except for Israel and North Korea (which I will ignore here). There was what was believed to be a joint nuclear test by Israel and South Africa in the Indian Ocean in 1979 but Israel appears to have conducted no independent tests. From my understanding of the literature it is possible to build and deploy a gun-type device without testing but that an implosion-type device requires a number of tests particularly to miniaturize the design to fit on top a missile.
    According to Wikipedia, the CIA reckoned that Israel had enough plutonium in 1967 to construct a bomb quickly but in 1970 the NPT came into effect. So, for it to remain “legal”, the Israelis would have had a three year window to test their design a number of times but since 1970, they should not have had the opportunity to test their design any further unless one of the nuclear powers has breached the terms of the NPT.

    So what kind of device do the Israelis have, how well tested is it, how reliable is it and how small is it? Or do they really have the bomb?

    On the other hand, I can well believe, given all the dubious “intelligence” that is coming out of Tel Aviv, the Bibi was in a sulk because his nemesis, Ahmadinejad, was able to pose in front of the cameras so he decided he would too as you intimate.

  4. kindness (History)

    Those F15’s would never make it. They’d be turned around by that very same US controlled airspace.

    You want to completely screw the pooch wrt Israel & the US? Then attack Iran. If Israel does that, you won’t only be sticking it to the US’s relationship with the arab world, you’d be sticking it to the only country that really cares about you other than yourself.

  5. Arch Roberts (History)

    Let’s just hope Israel has not incorporated into its nuclear strategy the old Chinese proverb: kill one chicken and scare a thousand monkeys. If I got it wrong, I can trust this gang to correct me.

  6. Azr@el (History)

    I believe the expression is SHA jI XiA Hou i.e. “Kill a chicken to scare the monkey”.

    Something tells me most of that equipment featured in the photos bear no “Product of Israel” stamp. Wonder where they got them from? Ebay?

  7. Hairs (History)

    The equipment may well be a sample rack.

    The purpose of a sample rack is to cool samples that are continuously extracted from the water-steam cycle and, for some of the samples, pass them through a cation exchanger in order to measure the cation conductivity, which is one of the basic monitoring parameters for checking the cleanliness of the water-steam cycle.

    However, I don’t believe that the cylinders themselves hold ion exchange resins; they are much larger than would normally be used for holding resin, and they look opaque (which is unusual because a transparent holder is preferable so that the operator can see when the resin is exhausted). More likely – if it is a sample rack – the cylinders are the individual heat exchangers for cooling the samples (note that they connect into a common header at the bottom).

  8. mark hibbs (History)

    Josh, I got a note from Cheryl Rofer suggesting, and I think compellingly, that the equipment Bibi is staring at in the picture would appear to be for the water purification system of the reactor, not anything connected with plutonium separation. The separators in the reprocessing plant would be too hot for people to be standing around. Ion-exchange resin-related gear in some facilities are located in auxiliary buildings at the reactor site. I think Cheryl may be correct.

  9. Josh (History)

    Hairs, Mark:

    Both of your suggestions seem plausible and are probably better than anything I came up with on my own.

    In connection with Mark’s/Cheryl’s suggestion, I’d just observe that we need not assume a reprocessing campaign was underway when the picture was taken.

  10. Yale Simkin (History)

    Josh wrote:
    “I’d just observe that we need not assume a reprocessing campaign was underway when the picture was taken.”

    That would not matter. If it had ever been used, fission product contamination would essentially permanently render the equipment “hot”.

    Bibi would need more protection.

  11. Josh (History)

    Ah, figurative “hot.”

  12. Carole Gallagher (History)

    Just for the record, Tom Tancredo is no longer a U.S. Representative from Jefferson County, Colorado. His obtuse state of mind since that quote about bombing Mecca in 2005, plus all his nonsense as a presidential hopeful, made it impossible for him to be re-elected in 2008 — even as a JeffCo dogcatcher.

  13. anon

    Speaking of JeffCo, and a relavant facility that used to be located there, Ion Exchange columns would probably be located within a glove box both for shielding and to facilitate changeout of the resins while controling contamination. As Hairs mentioned above, traditionally Ion Exchange Columns were clear tubes. Incidentally, I do not believe that the columns in the the figure 49.5.1 are ion exchange columns either. They look to me like pencil tanks for liquid waste collection.

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