Science

Canada and Israel—loving cousins in the Nuclear Family

WILLIAM DAMPIER November 15 1976
Science

Canada and Israel—loving cousins in the Nuclear Family

WILLIAM DAMPIER November 15 1976

Canada and Israel—loving cousins in the Nuclear Family

Science

Earlier this month a group of internationally known nuclear physicists, including a contingent of distinguished Canadian scholars, interrupted a symposium being held in a small town near Tel Aviv to witness a far-from-uncommon ceremony: clad in academia’s traditional mortarboard and gown, Toronto millionaire Murray Koffler received a PhD, honoris causa, from Israel’s prestigious Weizmann Institute. Later, he officiated at the ribboncutting that opened the Institute’s new Canada Centre of Nuclear Physics.

Koffler, 52, a successful businessman (Shoppers Drug Marts, Four Seasons Hotels) and philanthropist, fully earned his doctorate. As president of the Canadian Society of the Weizmann Institute, he was the prime mover in raising $3.5 million— half of the total cost—to buy a single, highpowered piece of lab equipment that, almost overnight, puts Israel among the world leaders in nuclear research.

Apart from its size and significance, the donation itself was not out of keeping with Canada-Israeli relations, especially in nuclear physics. Israeli scientists are trained in Canadian labs—including the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited research centre at Chalk River, Ontario, where the equipment is similar to facilities at the Weizmann. The latest Canadian gesture is only the first stage of a three-part program which by 1980 will give the institute one of the best-equipped nuclear laboratories in the world.

Technically, the new, Israeli-designed equipment is described as a 14-million volt Pelletron ion accelerator—essentially a device that whips minute particles to nearinfinite speed, then aims them at the nuclei of atoms in a “target.” By recording the results of the ensuing collisions, physicists are able to make informed guesses about the construction of atoms. The technique itself has been in use for many years; the Israeli equipment merely improves the method. Says Dr. Douglas Milton, the physicist in charge of a similar device at Chalk River: “Trying to understand the structure of the nucleus is like peeking through a keyhole into a room; you can’t see enough to make sense of what you discover. By making the accelerator more powerful, you enlarge the keyhole.” In that case, Israel now claims the world’s largest keyhole; while Britain, the United States and Japan have more powerful accelerators either planned or under construction, the Weizmann device is said to be the most powerful of its type now in use anywhere.

According to Canadian scientists famil-

iar with it, the accelerator is a pure research tool with no immediate military or civilian application. Nevertheless, sooner or later the purest of research is applied—for better or worse. Some of the early experiments performed with the new accelerator are aimed at determining the shape and “softness” of atomic nuclei, crucial questions in understanding the process of nuclear fission. Indeed, while officials are reluctant to discuss it and military censorship in Jerusalem vets everything written on the subject inside the country, Israel’s nuclear program is already well advanced. Last spring a CIA official stated flatly that Israel now owns between 10 and 20 nuclear weapons “available for use,” and widely circulated news reports contend that nuclear warheads were mounted during the Yom Kippur war in 1973.

The only official statement came from President Ephraim Katzir, himself a distinguished scientist closely connected with the Weizmann Institute. In what was doubtless a calculated indiscretion, Katzir admitted last summer that Israel’s nuclear capacity could be prepared for use “within a few days.”

The mere building of a nuclear bomb presents no great problem. Israel already boasts two experimental nuclear reactors, one at Dimona in the Negev desert built during the early Sixties with French help, and a smaller but more modern unit at the Nahal Sorek research station south of Tel Aviv. The Dimona reactor is capable of producing plutonium from other by-products of the nuclear reaction; the process requires a chemical separation plant, itself a

major industrial undertaking. According to Gideon Pe’eri, director of scientific relations at the Israeli Atomic Energy Authority, Israel has never built a separation plant “and I don’t think we have any interest in having one.” Skeptics who recall that former Premier Ben-Gurion once described the Dimona reactor as “nothing but a textile factory” may not be convinced.

Last year outgoing CIA director William Colby reported to the U.S. Congress that Israel was clandestinely diverting fissionable material, and reports from outside Israel insist that a separation plant has been operating since 1969. Moreover, Israel has a ready source of low-grade uranium in the Dead Sea area. A locally developed process for obtaining uranium economically from phosphates—the process was swapped to the French for their help in building the Dimona reactor—could produce 100 to 150 tons of uranium a year, according to Shimon Yiftah, head of Israel’s Nuclear Sciences Society.

Israel is also on the threshold of developing a domestic nuclear energy program. Three U.S. firms have bid on a contract to build two 900-megawatt generators—although some politicians are gagging at the projected cost figures—and local experts estimate the country will need eight nuclear generators by the end of the 1980s. The Canadian-donated research facilities at the Weizmann Institute will probably help speed those developments, and it is hoped the research there will be used beneficially. In an area as prone to war as the Middle East, the dangers of misused nuclear research are obvious, WILLIAM DAMPIER

WILLIAM DAMPIER