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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Israel reactor casesheds light on nuclear safety faults

  • Published 01:06 19.12.11 Latest update 01:06 19.12.11

Workers at Dimona Negev Nuclear Research Center claim that they incurred cancer and other diseases as a result of extended exposure to radiation at work.

By Gili Cohen  
The examination in Petah Tikvah's District Court of claims by 44 employees of the Dimona Negev Nuclear Research Center (NNRC ) has shed light on what occurs behind the scenes at one of the country's most secret facilities. After two weeks of open hearings, many details have surfaced pertaining to safety procedures and monitoring of radioactive materials at the center. 

The reactor workers claim that they incurred cancer and other diseases as a result of extended exposure to radiation at work. It bears mention that about half of those mentioned in the case are no longer alive. Members of their families regularly attend the proceedings, where they are amazed to learn about the conditions their relatives faced, which have been kept under wraps until now. 

Dimona nuclear research center - Reuters The nuclear research center in Dimona.
Photo by: Reuters

The proceedings are being monitored continually by NNRC representatives who are responsible for information security and have some influence after certain details are described in the hearings. 

A clear majority of the 44 were employed directly by the NNRC, and some worked for sub-contractors in the 1960s and 1970s. A large proportion were employed in the reactor in what were called "hot areas," meaning they were exposed to radioactive materials as part of their daily work. Others worked in the reactor's "cold areas," in offices and other places considered to be sterile and impervious to radiation. 

During the last hearing, on Wednesday, prosecutor Ilan Kaner presented an internal memorandum that attests to apparent safety malfunctions that lead to radioactive leakage. A quote from a November 1992 memo written by a defense witness, Dr. Dan Litai, who served as deputy director of the reactor's safety division, was cited in the hearing. Litai disclosed in the memo that a cabinet in a cold area that was ostensibly free of radiation held radioactive materials. 

Attorney Kaner presented other evidence from internal memoranda from the NNRC, which included statements such as, "This is not the first time radioactive particles have been discovered in a cold area." 

While the defense objected to the use of internal information as evidence in this case, Judge Esther Dudkiewicz commented that the state's prosecutors are expected to present authentic documents in court that bear witness to safety malfunctions. 

For his part, Litai testified that he was aware of leakage in the past of radioactive materials in the reactor's cold areas. "There were such mishaps," he said. He added that when such circumstances occur, "an area is cordoned off, and the problem is handled." 

Litai stated that "the NNRC is not a completely sterile institution. There have been accidents. There were mishaps starting the day the facility was established, and I assume that these have continued to the present day." 

In recent years, NNRC officials have been forced to confront accusations that the reactor's facilities, built about a half-century ago, are old and that this presents a danger to the surrounding areas. The officials claim, however, that the reactor adheres to international safety standards. 

In a hearing last week, Judge Dudkiewicz leveled criticism against NNRC's management regarding its policy of classifying information related to internal examinations of employees in the so-called hot areas. Her comments came in response to a disclosure that documents bearing data about such examinations had been destroyed, and cannot be restored.

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