Trump's new Iran sanctions have put airstrikes on hold — but nuclear risks remain

History suggests these dark scenarios cannot be dismissed. Even more critical, available measures to reduce these dangers must not be ignored.
Image: Iran Deal
Workers stand in front of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant in 2010.Reuters file
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By Bennett Ramberg, Former policy analyst at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs

The Middle East presents a dangerous nexus of nuclear reactors and violence. It remains the only region where foreign powers have attacked their enemies’ nuclear plants. On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order putting in place what he called "hard-hitting" new sanctions on Iran. Should continuing tensions between Tehran and Washington boil over into intense hostilities, one ominous nuclear policy question cannot be ignored: Will the presence of reactors in an enlarged conflict zone open a Pandora’s box to the first radioactive war in history?

Will the presence of reactors in an enlarged conflict zone open a Pandora’s Box to the first radioactive war in history?

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a 2015 New York Times opinion piece that Washington needed to aim for “breaking key links in [Iran’s] nuclear fuel cycle” through military action. (And envisioned Israel playing a role.) That military option became moot when the Obama administration signed the Iran deal. Now that Trump has withdrawn from the agreement, however, military action is again an option — as well as serious consequences should any action go forward.

Consider, for example, if the current tensions escalate to the point that Tehran crosses Washington’s red line, as it has threatened, and expands nuclear materials production, openly breaking the deal struck with the Obama administration and its allies. Would the United States decide the time had come to eliminate Iran’s nuclear enrichment and related facilities?

In the powder keg of the Middle East, would Iran’s mullahs or their Hezbollah proxy then seek to make good on longstanding threats to launch reprisal rockets at Israel’s Dimona weapons reactor, releasing radioactive elements? And would such an attack propel Israel to respond in kind by striking Iran’s much larger Bushehr nuclear power plant?

History suggests these dark scenarios cannot be dismissed. Even more critical, available measures to reduce these dangers must not be ignored.

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In the past, no military strike on a nuclear plant ever released radioactive elements. In several cases, this is because the facilities were targeted while still under construction. Israel’s 1981 airstrikes on Iraq’s Osirak presumed weapons reactor and 2007 strike on Syria’s suspect Al Kibar reactor hit plants as they were being built. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Baghdad’s multiple attacks on two Iranian power plants in Bushehr also occurred when they were under construction. As a result, no radioactive releases took place in any of these attacks.

There have also been failed military actions. Iraq’s 1991 Scud missile attacks against Israel’s Dimona reactor hit dirt, as have multiple Hamas attacks since then. During the Gulf War, however, there was a close call: The U.S. bombing of Iraq’s Tammuz II research reactor destroyed a small operating plant. But the authorities had already removed the reactor core in anticipation of war.

Today’s Middle East nuclear reactor profile has become more complex, though. Iran now operates one Russian-designed 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant at Bushehr and is building two others. In 2020, a new power reactor is scheduled to go online in the United Arab Emirates, where three others are under construction. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt also now plan power reactors.

At the same time, many nations in the region have increased their military capacity to destroy reactors. With more capable aircraft and ballistic missiles, Israel’s effectiveness has magnified. Iran’s capability has also improved — its missiles can now hit Israel — though its weapons lack pinpoint accuracy. Yet its surrogate, Hezbollah, is cited as the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor, and reportedly has thousands of rockets.

If a nuclear plant is hit, the results could be radiation hazards never seen in warfare. Several factors complicate risk projections.

First, with a nuclear plant, size does matter. The Dimona reactor, for example, is no Chernobyl — site of a 1986 catastrophic nuclear accident that Americans are now being vividly reminded of in a remarkable television miniseries. That atomic plant was orders of magnitude larger.

For the much smaller Israeli reactor, destruction would produce the equivalent of an immense dirty bomb, subject to countless variables: Will the reactor be operating at full power at the time of the attack? Will the strike release the heavy water surrounding the core to allow radiological dispersal? Will the munitions generate fires that eject material into the environment? Will the attack spread to spent fuel pools or high-level waste generated by on-site reprocessing to extract weapons plutonium?

Seasonal winds would also affect the spread of the contamination. Computer mapping of the region can help grapple with this. Beyond the reactor site and environs, where heavy contamination will be significant, computer simulations find that even the very light radioactive contamination projected elsewhere may lead to between dozens and hundreds of additional cancer victims.

At the same time, a military strike on Iran’s Bushehr plant, which is larger than Israel’s Dimona, could be highly destructive. The reactor contains substantial radioactive inventory that could be severely compromised in an intense war setting, which would make it difficult to mobilize the resources required to combat dangers. Weather data shows, however, that winds would likely spread contamination to sparsely populated zones along the Persian Gulf.

But Iran would also face the loss of a multibillion-dollar reactor that provides 10 percent of its electricity, coupled with cleanup costs mirroring Chernobyl and Fukushima in the many hundreds of billions of dollars. This calamity would likely overwhelm the resources of the ill prepared society.

Boosting missile and air defense around reactors is one obvious preparation — and Israel reportedly has done so. No defense, however, is foolproof.

Countering these sorts of risks is challenging — to say the least. Today, international law does not actually prohibit attacks on reactors if they contribute to military operations, including electricity. (Though one comprehensive bilateral prohibition that could be a model is the 1988 agreement between India and Pakistan.)

Boosting missile and air defense around reactors is one obvious preparation — and Israel reportedly has done so. No defense, however, is foolproof. Foolproof would be closure of Dimona, the world’s oldest reactor. The alternative — a temporary reactor shutdown removing the core, spent fuel and liquid wastes into deep bunkered structures under the large reactor compound — could reduce radioactive releases.

Bushehr, which shuts down operations for normal maintenance, could also reduce radiological consequences if operators remove the core and spent fuel.

Acknowledging that mutually assured radioactive contamination would result from nuclear reactor attacks should be sobering enough to prompt all across the Middle East to heed the terrible lessons of Chernobyl: Releases of large inventories of radiation into the environment only sow grief that will last generations, benefiting no one.