When allied planes bombarded Iraqi nuclear facilities, more was involved than an escalation in the war. A threshold was crossed.
For the first time, operational nuclear reactors had been attacked in war.
“The two operating reactors they had are both gone. They’re down; they’re finished,” Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared Tuesday.
President Bush boasted a day later: “We have dealt a severe setback to Saddam’s nuclear ambitions. Our pinpoint attacks have put Saddam out of the nuclear bomb-building business for a long time to come.”
Nuclear experts, while conceding that they lack access to the military intelligence available to the President, question how fatal a blow the attacks may have been to Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. Iraq may have secreted away its weapons-grade fuel before the war and may yet be capable of producing a crude nuclear bomb.
Independent authorities interviewed by The Times noted that the two small research reactors were “irrelevant” to Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons-making capability.
More to the point, they said, is the fate of at least 26 pounds of weapons-grade uranium known to be in Iraqi hands--nearly enough to fashion a Nagasaki-type atomic bomb.
Whatever the status of Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, the long-term implications of bombing reactors--an issue that has been virtually dormant for the past 10 years--have suddenly been thrust on the world stage by the war in the Persian Gulf.
“It is the first time that live reactors have been bombed,” UCLA nuclear expert Bennett Ramberg said. “A precedent has been established.”
Few are willing to fault the President in the middle of a war for ordering the strike. Iraq has made little secret of its drive to develop an “Arab” nuclear bomb.
Even some of those who worry about the precedent suggest that under the circumstances, the United States may have had little choice but to destroy Iraqi nuclear capabilities, whatever they may have been.
“It’s far more desirable to see one of these reactors destroyed than to see resulting nuclear weapons used somewhere down the line. If that’s the choice we faced, then this was the right action,” said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.
But, until this week, no country had risked bombing an operational reactor. Indeed, Israel’s daring 1981 air raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor was intentionally ordered before the reactor was loaded with nuclear fuel.
“When Israel destroyed that reactor in 1981, they scrupulously timed it before operations of the reactor had begun so there was no such environmental problem,” Aftergood said.
To attack a “hot” reactor, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said in 1981, “would have caused a huge wave of radioactivity in the city of Baghdad, and its innocent citizens would have been harmed.”
There were those at the time who questioned Begin’s statement, among them the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y., a U.S. government weapons research complex.
Ramberg, a senior research associate at UCLA’s Center for International and Strategic Affairs, said few took Begin’s rationale seriously because of the relatively small size of the reactor.
That view appears to have guided U.S. military planners in ordering the latest offensive against the two small Iraqi research reactors, one supplied by France and the other by the Soviet Union. The Pentagon said it concluded beforehand that there would be no significant radioactive contamination.
Indeed, after the attack, Marine Maj. Gen. Martin Brandtner, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this week that “we have detected no perceptible radiation.”
Still, the attack established what Paul Leventhal, director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, called a “dangerous precedent.”
By attacking operational reactors, the allies not only ran some risk of unleashing radioactive contamination but dramatically called into question the effectiveness of international safeguards against nuclear proliferation.
The attacks may also have opened the door to more deadly and catastrophic assaults in the future on nuclear facilities by terrorists and hostile nations.
“I wonder if this raises concerns that these attacks could prompt retaliation against our reactors. One questions how well protected our reactors are against such an attack,” Leventhal said.
Ramberg said the raid could offer terrorists and hostile countries several misguided lessons.
The first is that nuclear reactors are “benign” targets. The second is that they are “legitimate” targets because they may be used for nuclear weapons programs. Thirdly, the door may be opened for assaults on far larger “power reactors” used to generate electricity.
Ramberg, the author of “Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy,” first published in 1980, told The Times, “Were (the targets) nuclear power plants, the radiological consequences would be very severe. An illustration of that would be Chernobyl.”
Ramberg and others noted that South Korea, for example, has been complaining about a nuclear complex in North Korea. India and Pakistan have long cast a wary eye at each other’s nuclear facilities, although they have concluded an agreement to spare each other’s nuclear facilities in the event of hostilities.
The U.S. has repeatedly opposed any proposal prohibiting military attacks on any nuclear facilities, even those inspected by the IAEA.
According to congressional sources and experts in nuclear proliferation issues, the allied air strikes on Iraq’s two research reactors at Tuwaitha point to a widely held perception that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency are ineffective in preventing a determined and crafty ruler from secretly developing a nuclear arsenal.
Under the treaty, which went into effect March 5, 1970, countries with nuclear weapons agreed not to assist any non-nuclear country in obtaining or producing nuclear explosives.
The non-nuclear weapon states agreed not to produce nuclear explosives and to allow inspection of their peaceful nuclear facilities to ensure against diversion of those resources to weapons production.
If any member state suspected a violation, it could take the issue to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would investigate and dispatch its findings to the U.N. Security Council for collective action.
But, as of Friday, the IAEA, headquartered in Vienna, reported that no member state had invoked the provisions.
Instead, the allies took direct action, in effect employing the doctrine of “assertive disarmament” announced by Israel in 1981.
“This is a step back into the 19th Century in the way international politics is conducted,” one knowledgeable congressional source who asked to remain anonymous said Friday.
Aside from the longer-term issue of precedent, the immediate question is how big a blow the allied attack was to Hussein’s nuclear armament program.
Iraq’s nuclear capabilities are widely disputed. Some authorities, including scientists and former CIA Director James Schlesinger, have said that Iraq was at least five years away from building a bomb. The Bush Administration insists that Baghdad could have been only a year away from developing some kind of nuclear device.
More critical than the two reactors, nuclear specialists said, were other Iraqi installations, including Factory 10 at Tadji, where it was thought that centrifuges had been installed that are essential to enriching uranium for a nuclear bomb.
Gary Milhollin of the University of Wisconsin’s Project on Nuclear Arms Control noted that centrifuges can be easily dismantled and hidden. They are about 4 feet high and 1 foot in diameter. There are indications that the facilities housing the centrifuges were destroyed or severely damaged.
“They (centrifuges) are smaller than Scuds,” said Milhollin, referring to the difficulty the allies have had in ferreting out and destroying Iraq’s Scud ballistic missiles, which have been targeted on Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Interest in the fate of Hussein’s weapons-grade uranium acquired from France and the Soviet Union is high. Was the fuel destroyed in the raid? Did Iraq secret it away before the war started?
The fuel was last accounted for last November during an inspection by the IAEA. The inspection team found no violation of the non-proliferation treaty, which Iraq has signed. But the Bush Administration remained highly skeptical.
WHAT ABOUT CONTAMINATION?
Reports that two nuclear reactors have been destroyed in Iraq have prompted questions about potential contamination. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has asked for Pentagon clarification of the attacks, according to Reuters news agency.
Two reactors near Baghdad of Soviet and French design were relatively small, and their destruction was believed unlikely to cause major contamination.
Both plants were inspected periodically by IAEA to confirm that they were being used for research; Iraq has signed the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty committing it to open nuclear facilities to inspection.
According to IAEA records, the two plants held 50 fuel rods with about 45 pounds of enriched uranium, used to make weapons-grade fuel. Experts say it is enough to make a bomb if it can be extracted--a time-consuming process.