If an enemy missile succeeded in hitting a nuclear power station here, it could lead to a major dispersal of radiation and the exposure of large populations.
By Hillel Shuval

In this era of growing concern with global warming and the search for clean energy sources, many countries, including Israel, have given renewed consideration to expanding the use of nuclear energy for electric power production. The Israel Electric Corporation and the Ministry of National Infrastructure support the idea, and have already set aside a site for a first nuclear energy plant, at Shivta, in the southern Negev.

If that comes as a surprise, it is because there has never been a full, open public discussion of Israel’s policy and plans for nuclear energy. According to press reports, there have been a number of official government contacts with manufacturers regarding the purchase of an “off-the-shelf” nuclear power plant. Apparently, though, the serious nuclear situation in Fukushima has put these plans on hold.

The advantages of nuclear energy are many. Unlike the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, nuclear fission doesn’t release gases and particulates that are detrimental to public health. More important, it eliminates the release of carbon dixoxide and other gases that contribute to global warming. And it reduces dependence on imports of oil, gas and coal – all fuels that will eventually be depleted globally – from Middle Eastern countries and other foreign sources.

In 1975, the Rasmussen Report evaluated the dangers and probabilities of nuclear-plant accidents, and showed that if the “maximum credible accident” ever did occur in a reactor adjacent to a densely populated area, the health and environmental impact might be great – including numerous deaths, illness and possible genetic damage, as well as the need for mass evacuation of people from contaminated areas. However, the report emphasized that, because the nuclear industry was built with “fail-safe” systems with double- and triple-safety back-up arrangements, air-tight containment vessels and highly trained personnel, the probability of such an accident occurring was very slight – on the order of one in a million over the life of a reactor. In fact, however, since the beginning of the nuclear-power era, in 1950, there have been 29 major and minor civilian nuclear accidents, not nearly as infrequent as predicted in the early risk-analysis reports.

A recent report on Chernobyl by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states that “more than 300,000 people were displaced from their homes by the disaster; roughly six million were affected. A swath of geography half the size of Italy or the Republic of Korea, was contaminated.” As chilling as those facts are, it’s also true that a large country like Ukraine – or Japan or the United States – can undergo an event of the proportions of Chernobyl or Fukushima and still survive economically, socially and politically. Israel, however, is a small and densely populated country. If a very serious nuclear accident were to occur here, for example at Shivta, the theoretical damage, based on my own personal estimate, drawing on the literature and the actual experience at Chernobyl and assuming a 30-mile contaminated evacuation zone, like that proposed around Fukushima, could include:

• The death, or serious illness, of 100 to 1,000 people, over time, from radiation exposure;

• Exposure of 100,000 to 250,000 people to low levels of radiation that could in time cause cancer and possible genetic damage to some of their offspring;

• With a 30-mile evacuation zone, the need to remove up to 250,000 people, including all of Be’er Sheva, from their homes, in some cases permanently. In a small country like Israel, it’s not clear where they all would go.

Israel’s security would be weakened in the aftermath of such an accident, due to the massive dislocation of populations and the breakdown of infrastructure. Exports, particularly of foods, would be badly damaged for many years. Tourism and air travel could be seriously curtailed. These economic blows could lead to a serious weakening of the economy over years.

But Israel has another risk that is unique: the fact that it may be exposed to conventional long-range missiles of ever-improving accuracy, from hostile countries such as Iran and Syria, or even from Hezbollah or Hamas. If any of them succeeded in hitting a nuclear power station, it could lead to a major dispersal of radiation and the exposure of large populations.

Could Israel consider such an accident a “tolerable risk,” even if its probability is very low? I doubt it. Despite its many advantages, nuclear energy is just not suitable for Israel.

If so, what are the alternatives? First and foremost, Israel must initiate a determined and intensive national campaign to conserve energy in industry, agriculture and the home. Secondly, we should initiate intensive study and investment in the development of alternative nonpolluting energy sources, particular solar and wind. Israel has few natural resources, but we do have copious amounts of free sunshine. Israel has clean and safe energy alternatives that can meet a major portion of its future needs, even if not all, and it should begin now to work on developing them, despite the efforts of some elements with economic interests to pull in other directions.

Prof. Hillel Shuval heads the department of environmental health sciences at the Hadassah College of Technology, Jerusalem. He is a former member of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission’s committee responsible for evaluating the environmental hazards of nuclear energy.