Iraq Going Nuclear Again: Is This Possible?
By Ali Abdel Amir
Translation by Maya Hardimon
September 25, 2017
Last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari requested the help of countries friendly to Iraq in building a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes. This was met with sarcastic comments that the Iraqi government is unable to provide conventional energy based on fuel and electricity, so why is it pursuing nuclear energy?
In his address to the UN General Assembly, al-Jaafari said that Iraq wants to build a peaceful nuclear reactor “based on its right to access nuclear technology and promote different sectors related to that technology on the legal basis of countries’ rights to peaceful use under the NPT.”
However, those who made critical comments of al-Jaafari’s remarks missed critical facts. These facts had to do with the fact that, in accordance with the UN Security Council’s 2010 resolution to lift sanctions on Iraq, there are no longer obstacles to Iraq’s entry into different applications of peaceful nuclear energy. This comes years after the destruction of a similar Iraqi nuclear project, which the previous Iraqi regime wanted for a secret program to produce weapons.
Officials and experts in the field of nuclear science say that the American declaration that Iraq can establish nuclear plants, which came immediately after the decision to lift sanctions on Iraq, is an important signal of support for Iraq to begin peacefully using nuclear energy. According to the new version of the UN Security Council’s latest resolution, there is no longer anything preventing Iraq from beginning peaceful applications of atomic energy. Should Iraq implement this resolution, it can create projects for nuclear power plants.
10 Years and $5 Billion
According to the estimates of experts and academics, Iraq needs around 10 years to implement a peaceful nuclear energy program. Iraq also requires a budget of $4-5 billion.
Dr. Raed Fahmi, the former Minister of Science and Technology, said that establishing nuclear power plants had been difficult for Iraq because they fell under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in accordance with UN sanctions following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. However, now Iraq can obtain research reactors and power plants; these will open up new avenues to use nuclear energy in a variety of fields, including medicine, water, and agriculture.
He explained that the Security Council’s decision to lift the ban on Iraq’s use of peaceful nuclear energy means that Iraq now requires new human capital, which should be invested in early.
Dr. Fahmi added that his country needs accelerators to generate radioisotopes to be used in different medical fields, which will be a starting point for the larger project. He also said that Iraq can now begin to launch integrated studies in preparation for establishing nuclear power plants.
He pointed out that Iraq can obtain scientific and technical support from the International Atomic Energy Commission and other international bodies and stressed that there are Iraqi experts who are able to begin the tasks, at least in the early stages.
Dr. Fouad al-Moussawi, the President of Iraq’s National Atomic Energy Commission, welcomed the Security Council’s decision to lift the ban on Iraq’s peaceful use of nuclear energy. He expressed that this came at a suitable time, given the country’s need for nuclear energy in many sectors.
Establishing Nuclear Plants in Iraq with International Support
International support for the establishment of a peaceful nuclear energy project in Iraq came from US Vice President Joe Biden, who said during a Security Council meeting in late 2010 that the Council decided to lift the sanctions it had placed on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Also in this meeting, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that Iraq has a way to resolve outstanding issues with Kuwait.
Zebari said that “Iraq can now import some tools that it was prohibited from importing before,” adding that “Iraq has not faced problems in other fields except for (nuclear) radiation, but now the situation has completely changed and there are no serious obstacles in front of us.”
In Baghdad, the Senior Undersecretary of Electricity, Raed al-Haaris, expressed optimism about the decision to lift the sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which will allow Iraq to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, including the generation of electricity.
Shortly after the Security Council resolution, al-Haaris said that the work on nuclear power projects will take a long time and that Iraq needs foreign expertise to use nuclear energy to generate electricity since this is new technology that has not existed in Iraq before. This is especially true because the Ministry of Electricity is currently focused on gas and thermal plants, providing expertise, and rapidly establishing stations rather than focusing on nuclear power plants.
Former Minister of Electricity, Kareem Waheed, called on French companies to build a nuclear plant to generate electricity in Iraq. Before his resignation in 2010 under pressure by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Waheed was quoted by the French Press Agency as saying that he had invited French companies to invest in Iraq, especially in the electricity sector, and he pointed out that nuclear power has become one of the top sources of electricity generation in the world. He said “I am ready to enter into communications with the French Nuclear Agency and to start building a nuclear power plant because these plants are the future … this is my opinion.”
Waheed’s call came three decades after Paris started building a nuclear reactor near Baghdad, which was bombed by Israeli warplanes on June 7, 1981.
In 1976, Iraq had signed a deal with France to build a nuclear reactor and construction began in 1979. However, in June 1981, during the Iran-Iraq war, Israel sent its warplanes to bomb the Tammuz reactor south of the nation’s capital (near Al-Mada’in), which had not yet been completed, saying that Saddam Hussein’s goal was to build nuclear weapons. He sought to rebuild the reactor, which was destroyed again in 1991 during the war to liberate Kuwait.
Dream Games with Adults
Iraq’s renewed fondness for nuclear science, which was partly responsible for some of its wars, its international isolation, and its exposure to two destructive invasions, comes at a very sensitive stage of regional politics, especially with its close neighbor Iran, which is being accused of turning its growing nuclear capabilities into a weapons program. However, Iraq insists on the peaceful application of its planned nuclear program, including its use in the health and agricultural sectors, water treatment, and most other service sectors such as electricity, science, and technology. This makes nuclear power relatively cheap, effective, and an attractive alternative.
Western concerns indicate that many radioactive materials are still missing in Iraq six years after the extensive looting of the nuclear research center in Tuwaitha, south of Baghdad, which housed a nuclear facility and reactors Tammuz 1, Tammuz 2 and Tammuz 14 and which for three decades was the vital focus of Saddam Hussein’s attempts to exert pressure on Iran and the US, creating a belief in the international community that the dictator was carrying out a military nuclear project.
An American researcher at the Strategic Studies Institute, Norman Cigar, expressed views on the establishment of a nuclear energy project in post-Saddam Iraq, which do not express an official position of the United States government but rather represent the academic freedom of the researcher. These views have been controversial, especially as they deal with the sensitive issue of nuclear power in a place like Iraq, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
According to the American study, the issue of nuclear energy has a special charm for Iraq, but the study considers this a point of national agreement in the post-Saddam era. This is especially true because the nuclear program has a wide range of benefits, including electricity generation, agriculture, and medicine. The transition from oil to nuclear power is also an indicator of modernity and a sign that the country is able to keep up with its neighbors in the region and achieve a “balance of terror” to ensure security and stability on a large scale.
The study also draws attention to concerns about potential environmental impacts, potential accidents, or what one should expect from similar movements toward establishing nuclear programs in the Middle East, which seems troubling in a region of continuous crises.
However, obstacles still remain to rebuilding Iraq’s nuclear infrastructure. Many facilities have been dismantled, fissile material has been removed, and many Iraqi scientists have died or emigrated. It is impossible to predict whether a military program will be re-established in the future given the changing internal political dynamics in Iraq; however, the United States can help manage an orderly, safe, and peaceful nuclear energy administration and reintegrate Iraq into civilian energy use.