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Israeli nuclear facility undergoes under construction project described as its biggest in decades

An Israeli nuclear facility 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 (yards) 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 reprocess the reactor’s spent rods to obtain weapons-grade plutonium for Israel’s nuclear bomb program.

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 metres long and 60 metres wide. Tailings from the dig can be seen next to the site. A trench some 330 metres runs near the dig.

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

What the construction is for, however, remains unclear.

The Israeli occupation government did not respond to detailed questions from the AP about the work, AP said.

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.

What “the Israeli government is doing at this 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 building the nuclear site in the late 1950s in an empty desert near Dimona, a city some 90 kilometres south of Jerusalem.

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 programme, it remains unclear how many weapons it possesses. Analysts, however, estimate ‘Israel’ has material for at least 80 bombs.

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.

“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.”

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.

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