The Dimona nuclear complex is a nuclear reactor in Israel. It's located south of Hebron in the Negev desert, and is about 60 kilometers west of Karak across the Jordan Valley. The reactor was built over 40 years ago, but has been an interesting point in Israeli foreign relations since.

The plant first came into existence in 1957, but the world had been generally shut out of the tightly-controlled facility since then. Israel has always refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, keeping its plants closed to outside inspections. This had generated a lot of rumors that Israel was attempting to create nuclear weapons using the reactor, something they still officially deny. A government official quoted, "We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East." Adding to the mystery of the complex, an Israeli plane was shot down when it happened to accidentally stray over the plant. Neighboring countries like Jordan have protested the plant's existence, because any Chernobyl-like event could have disastrous consequences to the entire region.

Dimona's nuclear secrets were spilled when a technician Mordecai Vanunu blew the whistle on them, telling London newspapers detailed information and photographs of the classified nuclear project. Israel denied the charge of possessing nuclear weapons in the face of Vanunu's damning evidence, but there has not been an official international inquiry, though Israel's neighbors have asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate. In 2001 an academic was detained over a book he wrote on the country's nuclear capacity. Yitzhak Yaakov, a retired Israeli general was jailed for talking to a journalists on the subject.

The Guardian, a UK paper, wrote:

Nobody, including the Knesset, quite knows what happens inside the Dimona complex, but if you put together a compote of usually reliable sources (the Federation of American Scientists, Jane's Intelligence Review, the Stockholm Institute), a tolerably clear picture emerges. Ariel Sharon probably has more than 200 nuclear warheads this morning - more if the 17 years since Mordechai Vanunu's kidnapping have been devoted to building stockpiles.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres virtually admitted that Israel possessed nuclear weapons during a speech in Jordan. “We built a nuclear option, not to in order to have a Hiroshima, but to have an Oslo,” he told an audience on July 13, 1998. He basically admitted to it in an Israeli documentary which was broadcast throughout the middle east, as a warning to the neighboring countries. That announcement may have been prompted by Iran's development of a nuclear power plant.

How did Israel manage to develop atomic weapons so secretly? There are a variety of reasons and its a treasure trove of conspiracy theories that try connecting former US presidents and CIA to Israeli activities. According to sources and documentaries that reconstruct the decades-long history, France helped Israel on its nuclear program in exchange for support in the Suez War. In the mid-1950s, the two powers were concerned over the growing nationalist movements in North Africa. Israel was concerned with Egypt, and France was worred about Algeria, their last colony. Their interests converged in 1956 when Israel agreed to team up with France and Britain in a war to punish Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for nationalising the Suez Canal.

A reporter sums up the deal best (1):

At the end of September 1956, in Sevres near Paris, Mr Peres, then a 30-year-old Defence Ministry official, accompanied David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, to a meeting with French and British delegations about the Suez crisis. The Israelis waited for the British delegation to leave before approaching the French on the matter of its nuclear project.

Mr Peres said: "In Sevres, when it was all over, I told Ben-Gurion, 'There's one piece of unfinished business: the nuclear issue. Before you agree, let me finish that.' Of the four countries which at that time had a nuclear capacity - the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France - only France was willing to help us."

Mr Peres is asked in the documentary whether Israel requested a nuclear reactor. He replies: "I asked for more than that. I asked for other things, too; the uranium and those things. I went up to Ben-Gurion and said, 'It's settled.' That's how it was..."

Israel still officially neither confirms nor denies making nuclear weapons at the plant near Dimona. The country's journalists use coded language, never stating unequivocally that Israel has the bomb. The policy of ambiguity was crafted to deter Arabs from attacking Israel while avoiding the political fallout of becoming an acknowledged nuclear power.

A new intelligence agency, the Office of Science Liasons,(LEKEM) was created to provide security and intelligence for the project. At the height construction, some 1,500 Israelis some French workers were employed building Dimona. To maintain secrecy, French customs officials were told that the largest of the reactor components, such as the reactor tank, were part of a desalinization plant bound for Latin America. In addition, after buying heavy water from Norway on the condition that it not be transferred to a third country, the French Air Force secretly flew as much as four tons of the substance to Israel.

In 1960, France began to pressure Israel to make the project public, because they were afraid that this would blossom into a scandal (and their colonialist war with Algeria was making them look bad already), and threatened to hold off on giving them reactor fuel unless they did. Israel worked out a compromise; France would supply the uranium and components already placed on order and would not insist on international inspections. In return, Israel would assure France that they had no intention of making atomic weapons, would not reprocess any plutonium, and would reveal the existence of the reactor, which would be completed without French assistance. In reality, not much changed - French contractors finished work on the reactor and reprocessing plant, uranium fuel was delivered and the reactor went critical in 1964.

Another source claims that Mossad got their hands on nuclear secrets through espionage, similar to the Soviet Union. A 1997 article claimed that Mossad uncovered a 1961 plot by right-wing French army officers to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle. The agency traded information about the plot with France for nuclear-weapons technology.

But if they have nuclear weapons, don't they have to test them? Sure, and there are reporters who dug around and found evidence of classified nuclear tests. Some newspapers in 1979 briefly noted that Israel and South Africa (who was also considered an international pariah for their apartheid) collaborated to conduct a nuclear test in the South Atlantic.

Israel allegedly helped South Africa develop nuclear-capable artillery pieces. The militaries of the two states had a mutual wartime agreement to assist each other in times of armed conflict. South Africa supposedly gave Israel carte blanche to conduct nuclear tests in the Indian Ocean, with or without South African supervision. South Africa provided Israel with uranium (one of their natural resources), and even allegedly conducted the first Indian Ocean atomic bomb test "on Israel's behalf" in 1968.

It is widely believed that the CIA turned a blind eye to the development of the Israeli bomb from the very beginning. U-2 Spyplanes photographed the plant's construction in 1958, but it wasn't identified as a nuclear site until 2 years later. Over the years, the complex was variously explained as a textile plant, an agricultural station, and a metallurgical research facility, until David Ben-Gurion stated in December 1960 that Dimona complex was a nuclear research center built for "peaceful purposes." At around the same time, the CIA issued a report outlining Dimona's implications for nuclear proliferation, and the CIA station in Tel Aviv had determined by the mid-1960s that the Israeli nuclear weapons program was an established and irreversible fact. By 1968, the CIA issued a report, after several conversations with Israel scientists, that concluded that Israel had nuclear weapons.

U.S. inspectors have visited Dimona seven times during the 1960's, but couldn't get an accurate picture of what was going on at the plant. The Israelis knew when the inspections would take place and restricted their agenda. The Israelis went so far as to install false control room panels and to brick over elevators and hallways that accessed certain areas of the facility. (Perhaps that's why President Bush didn't accept the fact that UN weapons inspectors didn't uncover any WMDs in Iraq, since people had beaten the system)

The inspectors were able to report that there was no clear scientific research or civilian nuclear power program justifying such a large reactor - circumstantial evidence of the Israeli bomb program - but found no evidence of "weapons related activities" such as the existence of a plutonium reprocessing plant.

Although the United States government did not encourage or approve of the Israeli nuclear program, it also did nothing to stop it. The US ambassidor to Israel during the 60's and 70's said that his job was to make sure the President didn't have to act on Israel's nuclear issue; "The President did not send me there to give him problems. He does not want to be told any bad news." Later on, the Carter administration tried to dampen the story of nuclear testing in the Atlantic ocean by ascribing the nuclear "double flashes" picked up on the radar of orbiting satellites to quirky atmospheric phenomena of some kind.

The actual size and composition of Israel's nuclear stockpile is uncertain, and is the subject of various estimates and reports. It is widely reported that Israel had two atomic bombs in 1967, and that Prime Minister Eshkol ordered them armed in Israel's first nuclear alert during the Six-Day War. It is also reported that, fearing defeat in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israelis assembled 13 twenty-kiloton atomic bombs. When Mordecai Vanunu leaked his information, it was believed that Israel had 100-200 nukes. His data indicated that at that time, weapons grade plutonium was being produced at a rate of about 40 kilograms annually in the 1970's. If this figure corresponded with the steady-state capacity of the entire Dimona facility, analysts suggested that the reactor might have a power level of at least 150 megawatts, about twice the power level at which is was believed to be operating. To accomodate this higher power level, analysts had suggested that Israel had constructed an enlarged cooling system. An alternative interpretation of the information supplied by Vanunu was that the reactor's power level had remained at about 75 megawatts, and that the production rate of plutonium in the early 1980s reflected a backlog of previously generated material. However, satellite imagery of the plant shows that there have been no new cooling towers since 1971, a very strong indicator that the power level hasn't increased. People have calculated that the plant therefore produces about 20kilograms of plutonium annually.

The Federation of American scientists estimates that Israel possesses between 100-200 nuclear weapons. Tom Clancy's book The Sum of All Fears (also a movie), debated the possibility what might happen if one of Israel's nuclear weapons wrecked havoc. Critics point out that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, while the US government campaigns to have Iran and North Korea (and formerly Iraq) sanctioned for nuclear activity.

Israeli officials have said that Israel will sign nuclear anti-proliferation agreements when it is fully accepted into the region and no longer faces existential dangers. No one is guessing when that is likely to be. Oddly enough, Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.