Bombing Iraq's reactors -- a big mistake

January 18, 1991|By Leonard S. Spector

IRAQ'S nuclear plants were said to be among the first targets in Operation Desert Sword. If the two nuclear research reactors at the Tuwaitha Research Center 15 miles southeast of Baghdad were bombed, American interests may have been injured more seriously than if the reactors had been left intact.

Over the next six to 12 months, Iraq, using highly enriched uranium fuel from these plants, could have manufactured a single nuclear weapon with the power of the Hiroshima bomb. In November, however, the International Atomic Energy Agency inspected the material at the Tuwaitha reactors and found Iraq had not tampered with it. Thus, for the moment, it is generally believed that Iraq cannot threaten U.S. forces or other targets with an atomic bomb.

Iraq is also working aggressively to produce weapons-grade uranium at other sites. This program is in the research and development phase, but beginning as early as 1995, by some estimates, Iraq might be able to build several nuclear bombs each year. And in the last few days there have been rumors that Iraq has built conventional bombs filled with radioactive materials -- devices that would not explode like atom bombs but would scatter radioactive debris.

U.S. forces presumably attempted to destroy the French and Soviet fuel, Iraq's only existing material for a true atomic bomb. Unfortunately, much of this material is radioactive through use in the Tuwaitha reactors, and the internal hardware of the reactors is also radioactive.

Thus to destroy the material, the U.S. might have taken the unprecedented step of bombing operating nuclear reactors. If this happened during the Wednesday and Thursday attacks, the reactors would have spewed radioactive debris in, and possibly beyond, the multi-building Tuwaitha complex. In contrast, no fuel had yet been placed in the Osirak reactor when Israel bombed it in 1981.

If the U.S. has destroyed the reactors, Saddam Hussein may very well claim Washington is engaging in "unconventional" warfare. He could then declare that Iraq was entitled to use its chemical or biological weapons, or its rumored "radiological" bombs.

Moreover, Iraq would reap a propaganda bonanza. Imagine the Iraqi leader reviling George Bush's "barbarism" on CNN, as he takes the international press in protective clothing around the Tuwaitha site, with Geiger counters clicking away.

Worse still, Iraq could claim the fuel was destroyed, and then use it for a secret bomb. On the other hand, if the fuel were still present, this would indicate that Saddam was not diverting it. Again, destruction of the Tuwaitha plants would only play into his hands.

Bombing Iraq's nuclear infrastructure, if it was accomplished, surely slowed Saddam's nuclear-weapon ambitions. But such indiscriminate strategy carries serious risks.

Leonard S. Spector is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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