Another First for the U.S.: The Bombed Nuclear Reactor in Iraq

Fellowship, the Magazine of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, January/February 1997. Reprinted as "U.S. First to Target [Operating] Nuclear Reactor" in book Metal of Dishonor, Depleted Uranium, International Action Center, New York, 1997

One fact of the Persian Gulf War seems to have been recorded in invisible ink: the United States is the first nation in history to have intentionally bombed an operating nuclear reactor. When asked the Defense Department’s position on the issue of nuclear reactors as military targets, Admiral Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information was not aware that the reactor at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center in Iraq had been in operation at the time it was bombed. "It’s a legitimate cause of concern," Carroll admitted. "Once a war starts, the value system changes and anything you can do to hurt the adversary and cause him problems, you find justification for doing." The military advantage is obvious in the quip Carroll recalled hearing: "You don’t have to take the bang to the enemy; the bang is already there when you take out his nuclear plants."

The reactor the U.S. destroyed at the Tuwaitha Nuclear research Center in Iraq, just ten kilometers southeast of Baghdad, was a small Russian-made research reactor typical of the kind found at Western universities (Berkeley has one, the University of Chicago, New York University, etc.). Vulnerable now as military targets are the world’s other 300 research reactors, in addition to almost 500 larger nuclear power reactors for generating electricity that could become deliberate Chernobyls.

"We knew that Tuwaitha had been severely hit in the course of numerous air raids," Maurizio Zifferero recalls, "the first of which occurred the night of 17 January [1991] resulting in the destruction of the Russian reactor." An Italian national and former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Zifferero helped establish the permanent Nuclear Monitoring Group in Iraq after the Gulf War. As leader of the United National Special Commission’s 687 Action Team (687 refers to U.N. Resolution 687 that spells out the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction), Zifferero has directed thirty IAEA inspections in Iraq over the past five years.

Zifferero describes Tuwaitha, situated on the left bank of the Tigris River, as being "equipped with three nuclear research reactors: French-supplied Tammuz 1 and Tammuz 2, and the Russian supplied IRT-50000." Of these, he said, "only the Russian was in operation at the onset of the Gulf war, the French ones having been destroyed (without release of radioactivity) in an Israeli air raid in June 1981 while they were still in the cold commissioning phase. In addition to a large inventory of radioactive fission products contained in the Russian reactor core and in the spent fuel stored in the reactor pond, Tuwaitha had a number of other radiation sources, a steady production of radioisotopes for medical uses, gram quantities of plutonium in addition to stock of depleted, natural, and enriched uranium (these last under IAEA safeguards)."

Disagreeing that the responsibility for the first intentional bombing of an operating nuclear reactor falls uniquely on the U.S., Zifferero believes responsibility is shared by member countries of the coalition. But the front page of the New York Times dated that same January 17 reports President George Bush emphasizing that "American planes struck at Iraqi nuclear and chemical-weapons production sites."

When questioned about the destruction of Iraqi nuclear facilities, in a briefing on January 31, 1991, U.S. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of allied forces in the Persian Gulf, answered: "Every target that we have attacked, be it nuclear, chemical or biological—we have very carefully selected the destruction means, okay, after a lot of advice from a lot of very, very prominent scientists. So we selected the destruction means in such a way that we absolutely almost to a 99.9 percent assurance have no contamination." There was little contamination at Tuwaitha, however, only because the bombs missed the reactor core.

"Looking back," Zifferero thinks, "it is almost a miracle that the Russian reactor core escaped destruction. Having seen the devastation produced at Tuwaitha by the coalition bombs, I am skeptical about the story of precision targeting there. It was, I am convinced, sheer chance. Or how would one explain bomb craters scattered around Tuwaitha in free areas between buildings?"

Iraq had not diverted the nuclear reactor fuel, as some nuclear-proliferation experts like Leonard Spector, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suspected it might do to hide its production of enriched uranium for use in a nuclear bomb. If the core of Iraq’s Russian reactor had been hit, radioactive contamination would have been spread in the area surrounding the reactor building. "Health hazards caused by a high radiation level," Zifferero believes, "would have been limited to the Tuwaitha Center with minimal consequences to the surrounding farm area."

"Tuwaitha is now a relatively clean place from the radiation level point of view," Zifferero avers. "Under IAEA’s supervision, the most dangerous material—the spent Russian reactor fuel—has been safely removed from Iraq in the course of 1993 and 1994, and sent back to Russia. All of it has been accounted for and none is missing." Reporting that Russia did not initially want Iraq’s nuclear waste back, the Arms Control research Center (ARC) notes that the Russian Mayak Combine at Kyshtym in the Urals finally agreed to accept it. Because of accidents and wanton dumping, ARC says that Kyshtym is described as "the world’s most radioactive site."

While Zifferero would describe the release of radioactive material at Tuwaitha as "negligible," a recently declassified Pentagon document reports that the damage to a "production unit" that "processed spent nuclear fuel" and "contained two hot cells for this purpose," caused enough nuclear contamination to warrant closing Tuwaitha for two days after the bombing.

Radioactive contamination would have also depended on the plume of the explosion and wind and weather conditions, observes Bennett Ramberg, research director for the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear safety watchdog group.

When asked if the subject of banning attacks on reactors had come up at the last Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) review, Admiral Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information replied that there "aren’t any negotiations [on the subject of nuclear power plants as military targets in war] because it isn’t an issue that has been introduced in the arms weapons discussion." Bennett Ramberg, however, recalls that the issue of bombing nuclear reactors did come up at the NPT’s Third Review Conference over ten years ago. "The Iraqis and Iranians raised the issue," Ramberg remembers, "and almost scuttled the conference. The [U.S.] Department of Defense doesn’t want any limitation on their abilities to strike anywhere they wish." An early whistle-blower in 1980 with the first printing of his book Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy: An Unrecognized Military Peril, Ramberg believes the U.S. has set a dangerous precedent.

When radiation from the Chernobyl explosion in the Ukraine fell nine days later in contaminated rain on Spokane, Washington, we learned that there is no "over there."

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