Conflict & Justice

The legacy of Iraq's bombed nuclear plant


What's left of the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility in Iraq, 30 years after it was first bombed by Israel.


Tracey Shelton

TUWAITHA, Iraq — Khadir Abus Ali was thrilled to start his first job in security at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility. It was 1981, and for an 18-year-old, $1,500 a month was excellent pay.

Later that year, on June 7, the reason for his generous salary became clear.

“I had heard planes circling Baghdad,” Ali, who now works as a taxi driver, recalled. “There was a loud explosion and a bright light pulsed across the area. But there were no flames. My arms were burnt and I could see the skin peeling back.”

What Ali had just witnessed was the world’s first bombing of a nuclear facility. Eight Israeli jets had destroyed the nuclear reactor known as Osirak, one of two reactors within the Tuwaitha facility.

Official records state that 11 were killed in the attack, including a French researcher. Ali said he witnessed hundreds more injured. Many were burned, he said, some blinded.

“We didn’t know which reactor was hit. The Italian reactor was already operational. We thought it would be another Hiroshima,” Ali added.

Osirak, a facility Iraq purchased from the French government and began to build in 1979, was just weeks away from becoming operational at the time of the strike. Despite contrary claims from both Iraq and France, Israel believed it was designed to produce nuclear weapons and called the bombing an act of self-defense. The United Nations, with the support of influential nations across the globe, criticized the attack as a “premeditated and unprecedented act of aggression.”

Three kilometers away from the site in the town of Tamim, Alaa Trad had just returned home from school.

“Windows shattered all over the village and all we could see outside were flames. We had no shelter. Everyone was going crazy,” she said.

A panic set in across the region. In the aftermath, many families left, including Trad’s. Although most returned, locals said that even today many people suffer from medical problems relating to the attack and that and numerous families have been unable to bear children.

On the way to the ruined facility, today, the heat is scorching. The desert shrub coverage offers no shade. Protective radiation clothing creates a sauna effect, and a thick dust mask makes breathing uncomfortable. A physicist walked a few steps ahead carefully measuring radiation levels.

The area is surrounded and divided by dirt walls about 50 meters high. Mechanical engineer Hadi Ibrahim Jassim, who heads one of the Tuwaitha decommissioning projects, said that the dirt mounds were designed to protect the reactors from aircraft bombing.

“It obviously hasn’t been very successful,” he said with a laugh as we approached the massive pile of wreckage that once formed a nuclear reactor, laboratories and offices.

Clamoring over unstable debris, Jassim points out the various components of the facility where there are still high levels of radiation.

The reactor itself now resembles nothing more than a pile of red pipes and scrap metal. The reactor pool is exposed and stagnant water still remains inside. The hot cells — sealed facilities complete with mechanical arms and tools and a lead lined observation window designed for testing radioactive materials — remain in tact amid the rubble. The chimney, cooling towers and part of an old blown out office complex are all that remain standing.

The ruins of Osirak, known locally as Tummuz, are heavily guarded and, along with the ruins of three other reactors, are still waiting to be decommissioned, or dismantled, by an Iraqi team of experts. Breaking down a blown up nuclear reactor, however, poses unique problems that no one has encountered before, officials said.

Musawi said that in addition to fuel leakage, the decommissioning teams face complications because of the structure itself was unsafe. Radiation, he said, settles in random pockets so levels must be measured before and after moving any debris. Any “hot spots” must be marked and contained.

At the Ministry of Science and Technology in Baghdad, deputy minister Fouad Al-Musawi said that Osirak was bombed before it was operational so the contamination was not widespread. The biggest problem the decommissioning team faces, he said, is a lack of experience.

“We have sent our scientists to train in the U.S.A., France, Australia — countries with experience in decommissioning nuclear facilities,” Musawi said. “But Iraq is unique. No one has ever decommissioned a bombed nuclear site. Iraq is the only place in the world where this has happened.”

And it has happened more than once.

Like Israel, many nations feared the regime of Saddam Hussein was secretly manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, under the guise of scientific research.

After earlier attempts by Iran failed to cause large scale damage, the same site, along with three other reactors at Tuwaitha, were completely destroyed by the U.S. Air Force in 1991, along with other scattered targets throughout the country that were believed to form Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

Despite the destruction inflicted on Iraq’s nuclear facilities, the United States and its allies accused Iraq of continuing its WMD program. The claim gave rise to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Investigators would later find no evidence that Iraq was developing WMDs.

At the time of the 1991 U.S. bombing, a large part of the Tummuz, or Osirak, facility had been rebuilt and a small reactor known as Tummuz 2, adjacent to the one destroyed by Israel, became operational. The whole site was hit a second time during the U.S. Gulf War.

On site, the engineers said that the aerial bombings caused the Tuwaitha facilities to collapse inward on top of the reactor cores, reducing environmental damage and fuel leakage. In cases where the explosion has been caused internally, as was the case with the Chernobyl disaster, fuel can be blown from within the reactor core and into the environment.

The decommissioning program began in 2008 and is now scheduled for completion by 2025. To begin with, three low level sights were chosen for “practice,” Musawi said. So far one has been. Two more decommissioning projects are underway in Tuwathia. The Lama site is now 80 percent complete with only the hot cells and a storage basement remaining.

Thirty years after the Israeli bombing, the decommissioning of Osirak is set to begin next year.

The facility is highly secure. Numerous checkpoints manned by Iraqi police guard the way. Official government documents must be presented and an armed escort accompanies visitors.

Jassim, who has worked on the site for the past 32 years, said this is mostly to protect the site from theft. Following the U.S. invasion in 2003, locals heavily looted the plant. Contaminated materials were sold or used locally as scrap metal.

“We believe this looting has increased the spread of contamination and related health problems among the local villages,” he said.

Although it remains a contentious issue, officials at the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology are unwavering in their stance that the facility was created and used for research alone and has never been used for military purposes.

“Of all the experts that have surveyed this area, no sign of weapons development has been found,” said Anwar Ahmed, project manager for the Tummuz Reactor Decommissioning Project.

Ahmed said what made the tragedy so appalling was that a “civilian facility” was destroyed by a military enemy.

“It was a sad day for the people of Iraq,” he said. “This was like a child of the Iraqi people. We gave our sweat and blood and money for the building of these facilities for the scientific advancement of Iraq. Suddenly it was all gone.”

For 42-year-old Jassim Mohammed, who witnessed the bombings from his produce stall just meters from Tuwaitha’s main entrance, the Israeli attack held no particular significance.

Mohammed said several foreign powers have bombed the area — Israel, the United States and Iran — and he describes this as “no problem” for the locals.

“Iraqi people know all about planes, guns and bombs. We just continue to sleep, work, eat and sleep. If we thought about these things we’d be very, very tired. This is life in Iraq.”