The Ultimate Middle East Missile Target: Nuclear Reactors
By Mark Dubowitz and Henry Sokolski
What if a nuclear reactor had been the target of last month’s accurate missile attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities? We might now be mopping up a Middle East Chernobyl. The lesson should be clear: Don’t build more large reactors in the region. They’re radioactive sitting ducks.
Saudi Arabia has plans to build an array of large nuclear power plants. Next door, the United Arab Emirates is spending $20 billion to complete four commercial reactors at Barakah. Egypt and Turkey both have begun constructing two massive Russian-designed nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, Iran has two operating reactors and has begun constructing two more. After Iran’s Sept. 14 missile attack against Saudi Arabia, though, all of these plants risk being wiped out.
Precision guided missiles are the reason why. Shortly after the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia, pictures revealed each of the oil tanks struck at Abqaiq were hit in the exact same spot. The missiles’s estimated accuracy was one meter. That makes even the hardiest of large reactors easy marks. Rather than target the most protected part of the plant, the large concrete containment building covering the reactor’s core, accurate missiles can put key auxiliary reactor facilities at risk.
One such aim point is the power plant’s emergency electrical diesel generator building. Knock the generators out and you deprive the reactor of emergency backup power needed to keep its safety and coolant pump systems operating when external, grid-supplied electricity is cut off by blackouts, storms, or attacks.
Then, there are the main electrical power lines coming into the plant. Hit both of these and the emergency diesel backup generators and you rob the plant’s coolant pumps and safety systems of all power. Reactor core meltdowns and fuel fires in the reactor’s spent fuel storage pond are assured (similar to Fukushima).
Yet, another aim point is the reactor’s control room, which is often located outside the reactor’s containment walls. Knock it out and you lobotomize the plant, which again will set the reactor on a meltdown trajectory.
Finally, there’s the reactor’s spent fuel storage pond building. If it is hit and subsequently drained of coolant, the spent fuel it contains will catch fire, risking a major release of radioactivity.
How large of a release? The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated a spent fuel fire at a typical power plant would likely discharge 100 times as much damaging radiation as was spread in the Fukushima accident. Accordingly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission projected a desired evacuation area more than 700 times larger than what the Fukushima accident required.
Some nuclear reactor owners recognize the risks of aerial attacks. Belarus just announced its deployment of modern air and missile defenses to counter possible military attacks against its new nuclear plant. Iran and Algeria have air-defended their reactors, as has Israel. UAE officials also have suggested they have such systems.
But will they work against the kind of high-accuracy missiles Iran fired at the Saudis? In the September attack, all 25 of the low-flying attack drones and missiles flew undetected. None of Riyadh’s air defenses (which included U.S. Patriot, German Skyguard, and French Shahine systems) engaged.
Yet, some experts doubt any current air defense system could do any better. The Pentagon’s top policy official and Israel’s prime minister were both rattled by the Saudi attack. The United States publicly warned that NATO currently can’t cope with such low-flying missiles. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a crash multibillion-dollar Israeli air defense development program to deal with them. Securing such defenses won’t be easy.
In the meantime, Middle Eastern states need more large reactors like a hole in the head. That goes for Iran, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria, as well as Saudi Arabia. In fact, no one in the natural gas and the sun-drenched Middle East needs nuclear power. Renewable and gas-fired electricity are much cheaper, quicker to build, and far less provocative.
What’s clearer still is that every Middle Eastern nation’s large reactor has been viewed by their neighbors as a nuclear bomb starter kit and has been targeted militarily. Iran went first in 1980, attempting to destroy Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in a four-plane raid. Israeli fighter bombers finished the job in 1981. Iraqi airplanes, in turn, attacked Iran’s Bushehr reactor six times between 1984 and 1988. Then Hussein fired three rockets at Israel’s Dimona facility during Desert Storm while the U.S. Air Force targeted and destroyed most of Iraq’s nuclear facilities. The United Kingdom and the U.S. continued to bomb suspected Iraqi nuclear sites after the war. Then, in 2007, Israeli planes destroyed Syria’s undeclared nuclear reactor at Deir-ez-Zor.
In late 2017, the Houthis claimed they fired a cruise missile against the UAE’s Barakah nuclear plant. At the time, UAE officials denied the attack took place and claimed Barakah was “immune” because it had “an air defense system capable of dealing with any threat of any kind.” Now, the Emiratis and anyone else pushing reactors in the Middle East have to worry that their nuclear dreams may literally explode and go up in radioactive smoke.