A Pandora's Box in the Middle East

“Anyone who is thinking of attacking Iran should be prepared for powerful blows and iron fists.” So declared Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Nov. 10, speaking in response to reports that Israel may strike Iran’s nuclear plants. But the risk of tit-for-tat attacks raises a specter few seem to recognize: the first radiological war in history.

General Masoud Jazayeri, deputy commander of Iran’s armed forces, indicated what “blows” and “fists” could mean when he warned last month that Dimona — the center of Israel’s never-acknowledged nuclear arms program — was “the most accessible target.”

The significance of the threat goes beyond the risk to Israel’s nuclear weapons program. An attack on the Dimona complex could release the facility’s radioactive contents, posing major long-term contamination risks to the reactor site and beyond.

But in a region where the principle of “an eye for an eye” has long held sway Tehran’s advantage stops there. As the country now housing the Middle East’s largest nuclear power plant at Bushehr, Iran has become the holder of the region’s largest radiological hostage. Does this present an Israeli checkmate? In this volatile part of the world, maybe, but don’t count on it.

Potential and active combatants have historically been reluctant to target operating nuclear reactors. The United States, for example, refrained from attacking North Korea’s Yongbyon plant to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, in part over radiological concerns. Israel took off the gloves and bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and Syria’s Al Kibar plant in 2007 before they went into operation, betting that neither country would strike Dimona in retaliation. The bet paid off. Iraq did not have the capacity to strike back and Syria feared the consequences of doing so.

Only in 1991, during the first Gulf war, did we see the first attack on an operational plant, when the United States bombed a small research reactor outside Baghdad. But Iraq had removed nuclear material from the plant before the war started, then tried its own hand at targeting reactors when it launched Scuds at Dimona. The missiles missed their targets.

Iran’s recent threat against Dimona may be mere puffing, but its ballistic missile capacity makes tit for tat strikes plausible, and General Jazayeri’s statement marks only one of many threats. Fortunately, Dimona is no Chernobyl or Fukushima. It has a relatively small reactor, and because it is used for weapons, operators replace fuel more often, reducing radioactive inventory, and Israel may not operate the plant continually.

On the flip side, after decades of service, adjacent facilities — some underground — hold spent fuel, plutonium and atomic waste that could add significantly to the consequences of an accurate ballistic missile strike from Iran.

Radiological effects would depend on the volume and nature of nuclear isotopes released, seasonal winds and protective measures. Computer models suggest that well beyond the zone immediately in and around the reactor and nearby communities, even the plant’s relatively small inventory of radioactive material could lead to a vast increase in cancers, birth defects and other related illnesses.

There would also be many troubling socioeconomic consequences. Public officials would have to restrict the consumption of foodstuffs from even modestly contaminated zones, and require the evacuation of commercial, industrial and residential districts in radioactive hot spots. The nuclear accidents in Ukraine and Japan suggest a huge increase in stress-related illnesses. Addressing such matters would add to the billions of dollars governments would have to spend on nuclear cleanup.

Bushehr, unlike Dimona, is a very large nuclear power reactor. Located in the northern reaches of the Gulf, the plant only began partial operation in September. It will go to full power early next year, building up an inventory of dangerous elements in the operating fuel as a natural part of the process.

Were a military attack to strike the plant at full power after months of operation, the release of radioactivity could be greater than at Chernobyl. Prevailing north, northwest winds would carry radioactive debris along the Gulf across sparsely populated regions. Given the size of the Bushehr plant, the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima tell us that Iran’s cleanup burden, energy loss and medical and population-relocation costs could approach hundreds of billions of dollars over decades.

Despite these grim scenarios, both Israel and Iran can attenuate risks beyond the imperfect air and missile defenses now in place. This includes plant shutdowns in times of crisis and the removal of radioactive elements to more secure locations, as Iraq did in 1991. Israel could close Dimona permanently given the plant’s age and mission fulfillment — the old reactor has generated all the weapons plutonium the country requires. Closure would symbolically help to reduce nuclear tensions in the region as well.

Given the dangers, Israel and Iran would do well to ask if opening a radiological Pandora’s box serves either’s interest.

By Bennett Ramberg, who served as a policy analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs under President George H.W. Bush.

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