Agricultural Research Organization, Volcani Center stores barrels meant for transfer to the nuclear site in Dimona; Environmental Protection Ministry inspection demands remove of waste immediately, center claims move scheduled for this month

Ori Blau, Shomrim | Published: 09.08.22,

The Agricultural Research Organization’s Volcani Center, stored 25 barrels of radioactive waste on its premises for decades, endangering civilians in a major central Israel city.

The waste was collected for a period of 10 to 15 years, and kept on site despite the risk of leakage. It was discovered during an inspection done by the Environmental Protection Ministry carried out in May, and although the center was instructed to immediately remove the materials, has yet to do so.

	מרכז המחקר החקלאי ראשון לציון מכון וולקני
The Volcani Institute (Photo: Orel Cohen)

The Volcani Institute is the largest agricultural research in Israel. It holds a radioactive work permit, used for different research needs, being carried out there.

Once the radioactive material is used, the waste, and whatever came in contact with it, is kept in temporary storage in a specialized warehouse for radioactive waste.

According to regulations, the waste must be transferred to Israel’s Nuclear Research Center (NRC), but the barrels holding radioactive waste were gathered and remained on site at he center’s campus in Rishon Lezion, a city with a population of nearly 250,000.

The Center for Media and Democracy in Israel, Shomrim – a news organization that investigated the matter, found that the accumulated waste is a product of C14, H3, and P32 isotopes. While their radiation is considered low, prolonged exposure to them is dangerous and could lead to organ damage.

The American Yale University, published an information pamphlet about these isotopes, stating that they must be handled wearing specialized equipment and behind a thick protection screen.

Despite the fact authorities ordered to clear the radioactive waste immediately when it was discovered, its transportation off site has been in the works for months.

Radioactive waste
Radioactive waste (Photo: Shutterstock)

Last year the Environmental Protection Ministry published a draft of regulations in handling hazardous materials in Israel, with the intention of updating them.

“This update is required for both the implementation of Israel’s commitment to the OECD and to execute the ministry’s work standards,” the ministry’s statement said.

“The definition of hazardous waste in the regulations is outdated and expansive, and does not match the current standard in OECD member states,” the ministry said.

The radioactive waste is to be stored at the Dimona nuclear research facility. Very little can be learned from public reporting but comments made by then Enviromental Protection Minister Yossi Sarid in 1993 , may be revealing.

Sarid said Israel’s nuclear waste is buried at the nuclear research site in Dimona and “there is no other site for such waste in the country.”

He added that the “suitability of the site was inspected by the Atomic Energy Commission under the supervision of the Nuclear Safety Commission”, and that “there is no removal of radioactive waste abroad.

מכון וולקני מהאוויר
Aerial view of the Volcani Institute (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Environmental Protection Ministry said in response: “During an inspection conducted by the ministry at the Volcani Institute, barrels containing radioactive waste from a variety of materials that were allowed to be at the premises according to its permit, were found. The barrels were in a designated waste room as required. Normal values of radiation levels were measured in the area and there was no danger of exposure to radiation by employees or civilians on the site.”

“Ministry experts also spoke with the institute’s radiation safety commissioner, who said the barrels had been accumulated over the past 15-10 years. According to the permit, unused radioactive waste must be removed. Therefore, the ministry demanded to removal of the waste to a designated site. The Volcani Institute said the removal of the waste will be carried out in the coming days.”

The Volcani Institute said in response that the material was kept in storage in a manner that meets the requirements of their permit.

“The stored waste is transferred to the site in Dimona every few years, according to availability and other considerations. In December 2021,preparations to remove the materials began and the Environmental Protection Ministry was advised of the fact during their May inspection tour. The transfer is scheduled for this month, ” Volcani said.

“It should be noted that the actual open radioactive sources used for research are mostly short-lived isotopes that, after six months, are not radioactive anymore.

In a small portion of the center’s work, isotopes are used, and their radiation is particularly weak and does not pass through a sheet of paper. In fact, most of the waste volume is not radioactive, soon after it is placed inside barrels. Due to the transition to new methods of analyzing, that do not require the use of the isotope, the amount of radioactive work with open sources is close to zero, and therefore the amount of waste produced is also almost zero,” the Volcani Institute said.