Israel’s Uranium Processing and Enrichment

Israel has relied on plutonium, rather than high-enriched uranium, as the primary fuel for its nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, Israel has developed the ability to process and enrich uranium at the Dimona nuclear complex. Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu told the Sunday Times of London in 1986 that Israel had been operating a secret uranium enrichment facility “on a production scale” since 1979-80. Vanunu also told former U.S. nuclear weapon designer Theodore Taylor that uranium was enriched by gas centrifuges. Based on Vanunu’s information, Taylor concluded that Israel was enriching uranium to weapon grade. Vanunu also confirmed earlier reports that Israel was conducting research on laser enrichment at Dimona.

Israel has obtained natural uranium supplies on the world market from a number of sources. Starting in the mid-1970s, Israel clandestinely imported 600 metric tons of yellowcake from South Africa. Israel has also devised a method of extracting uranium from the phosphate deposits in the Negev desert, where there is an estimated thirty to sixty thousand tons of uranium contained in low-level phosphate ores. Active mining of phosphate deposits takes place in the Negev near Beersheba. The Nuclear Engineering International industry handbook lists the Negev Phosphates Chemicals Company, at Mishor Rotem, as Israel’s only fuel cycle facility.

The French companies that built the Dimona reactor also supplied a uranium fuel fabrication plant. At the plant, uranium metal is encased in aluminum cladding to make reactor fuel rods. The plant’s capacity is unknown but is apparently sufficient to fuel the Dimona reactor.