Yesterday, Saudi Arabia signed a framework agreement with France’s major nuclear firm, EDF, to build a “potential” 1,600-megawatt electrical nuclear power plant. The Saudis certainly will have to weigh many factors before going final on the deal. Some of these — like cost and technical support — are obvious and are sure to get attention. One consideration — how vulnerable the plant might be to missile or drone attacks — however, is not.
Nuclear facilities in the Middle East already have been targeted with aerial attacks at least 13 times by Iran, Iraq, the United States, the UK, and Israel. Even the Houthis claimed to have aimed their longest range missiles against reactors in the UAE. This trend is likely to get worse.
Today, Iran, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and any number of Middle Eastern subnational and terrorist groups have drones and ballistic missiles 1,000 times more accurate than what was available when Israel first struck Saddam’s Osirak reactor in 1981.
What difference might that make? NPEC contracted Ms. Eva Lisowski, an MIT nuclear engineering grad and contract analyst, to find out. Her year-long analysis produced the attached report, “Hot Mess Next: Missile-Struck Reactors in the Middle East.” It makes for sobering reading.
Ms. Lisowski assesses the likely radiological releases from four nuclear plants including two that are operating in Iran and the UAE and two that are being built in Egypt and Turkey. Depending on whether the reactors’ spent fuel ponds were targeted and full or the reactor itself was hit and released radiation, tens of thousands to millions of nearby residents would have to be evacuated. Most would never see their homes again.
What political regime could cope with the political fallout of such an attack is unclear. What’s crystal is that this security concern needs to be dialed into the costs and risks associated with any proposed large reactor build in the Middle East. When it is, many states in the region should have cause to look elsewhere for electricity.
December 8, 2021
By Eva M. Lisowski
This volume of research was financially supported by grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Brooke Buskirk formatted and helped with the volume’s editing. Finally, the paper would not have been possible without the extensive research and analysis of Eva Lisowski.
How Numerous and Vulnerable Might Middle Eastern Reactors Be?
The short answer to both aspects of the question is… too much. Iran has begun building its second power reactor. The UAE has brought two on line and will be bringing an additional two more into operation in the next few years. Egypt had begun construction of the first of four large Russian designed power reactors at El Dabaa; Turkey is doing the same at Akkuyu. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Algeria all have plans.
Unfortunately, none of these programs’ managers fully anticipated another trend — the advent and proliferation of accurate missiles and drones. Not just Israel and Iran, but Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Syria now stock any number of highly accurate drones, cruise missiles, or rockets. And it’s not just states that are getting them. Hamas, the Houthis, Badr Brigades, Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Jund al Imam, and Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba have all fired them as well (in one case, the Houthis shot theirs, quite unsuccessfully, at the UAE’s nuclear plant).
What makes these accurate missiles so worrisome is their pinpoint discrimination and ability to penetrate air defenses. Where historically — on at least 13 occasions — Israel, the US, the UK, Iraq, and Iran bombarded reactors in the Middle East, they did so with air forces that had to skillfully evade active air defenses or with missiles that were highly inaccurate (e.g., SCUDs). The objective quite literally was either to destroy the entire reactor or just to (hopefully) hit any part of it.
Now, states and subnational groups armed with accurate missiles and drones can reliably strike specific features of a reactor. Instead of flattening the entire plant or unpredictably hitting some random part of it, missileers can confidently target the main reactor building, its spent fuel pond or control room, or the plant’s power lines or its emergency diesel generators, which support the reactor’s cooling and safety systems.
Given these possibilities, no state can do a serious cost-risk-benefit analysis of a large reactor project today without assessing the possible knock-on effects of them being struck. Of particular concern is gauging the damage most threatening to a government’s continued viability — the forced evacuation of nearby populations and the long-term radiological contamination of their homes and businesses.
No one has yet done this. This report does. It’s a disturbing read and suggests that those planning nuclear construction in the region need to rethink just what the safety hazards now are.
Henry D. Sokolski
To view the full occasional paper click here.