Military strike on Iran would result in thousands of civilian causalties
No matter how carefully it is planned, any military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities will end up killing hundreds of civilians. Iran has complicated this by locating many of the key facilities near dense population centers.
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Any attack on Iran’s nuclear installation would have as its objective the total destruction of the facilities—reactors, centrifuges, buildings, equipment, warehouses, supplies, and, almost certainly, employees. Strikes on the nuclear plant at Bushehr and Arak (once the reactor is operational) would result in the death of plant workers and emergency first responders, including members of the Revolutionary Guard and soldiers not equipped to handle radiation; severe radiation exposure for clean-up personnel; unprecedented release of radioactive material; the evacuation and relocation of thousands of local residents; the exposure of millions to contamination; the destruction of livestock and food crops; and the loss of agricultural land and water resources. Particularly telling is the fate of populations in cities near the nuclear sites. The residents of Pripyat, a city housing the workers at the Chernobyl plant, were evacuated shortly after the accident. More than 20 years later, Pripyat remains a ghost town. Iranian cities could suffer a similar fate (Figure 11).
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Isfahan will pay a particularly high price for the Ayatollah’s gamble and the gamble of Israeli and/or U.S. strikes. The current volume and lethality of the toxic chemicals produced at the Isfahan facility alone makes it impossible to ignore the unacceptable risks to civilians if some, or all, of this material is stored at this location. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, from 2004 to 2009, the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) has produced in excess of 371 metric tons (409 US) of uranium hexafluoride which is stored at either Isfahan or Natanz.7 Based on our calculations, if only 5% of 371 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride produced at the Isfahan facility becomes airborne during or after an attack, the toxic plumes could travel 5 miles with the Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) level of 25 milligrams per cubic liter covering a surface area of 13 square miles. With prevailing wind directions and speeds at 9.4 miles/hour moving towards the city, in about one hour, this plume could expose some of the 240,000 residents in Isfahan municipality’s eastern districts, particularly districts 4 and 6. At a 20% release, the IDLH plume will travel 9 miles covering 41 square miles and could expose some of the 352,000 residents, mainly in districts 13, 4, and 6, as well as residents in the region north of district 4. If we assume a conservative casualty rate of 5 to 20 percent among these populations, we can expect casualties in the range of 12,000-70,000 people.
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The port city of Bushehr is less than seven miles from the Bushehr nuclear facility. Prevailing wind directions blow towards the city, which has a population of 240,000. Although a less likely target, the city would suffer a fate similar to Pripyat, the Soviet city abandoned after Chernobyl, and hundreds of thousands of people in the region would be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation if military planners include the facility on their target list. If only 1 to 5 percent of the population is exposed to significant radiation levels, 2,400 to 12,000 people could suffer from severe health effects such as those witnessed in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Moreover, the damage would extend beyond Iran. An attack on the Bushehr nuclear power plant would pose a grave environmental and economic threat to civilians in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It would not only devastate the important business centers and fishing communities of the Persian Gulf, but also contaminate desalination plants, port facilities and oil fields. To gain an approximate idea of the economic consequences of a strike on Bushehr, one should consider that the government of Belarus has estimated the economic cost of Chernobyl to exceed $200 billion.
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An attack on the Uranium Conversion Facility at Isfahan and the Enrichment Plant at Natanz would release existing stocks of fluorine and fluorine compounds which would turn into hydrofluoric acid, a highly reactive agent that, when inhaled, would make people “drown in their lungs,” as one scientist put it. As a point of reference, fluorine gases are more corrosive and toxic than the chlorine gas used in World War I. Once airborne, at lethal concentrations, these toxic plumes could kill virtually all life forms in their path. Depending on the volume of chemicals stored at the facilities, population densities around the sites, and prevailing wind and meteorological conditions, tens of thousands of workers and civilians in Isfahan and fewer in Natanz could be exposed to toxic plumes. These plumes could destroy their lungs, blind them, severely burn their skin, and damage other tissues and vital organs.
Isfahan will pay a particularly high price for the Ayatollah’s gamble and the gamble of Israeli and/or U.S. strikes. The current volume and lethality of the toxic chemicals produced at the Isfahan facility alone makes it impossible to ignore the unacceptable risks to civilians if some, or all, of this material is stored at this location.
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Based on the best information available as well as discussions with Iranian and Western nuclear experts, we have estimated the total number of people—scientists, workers, soldiers and support staff—at Iran’s four nuclear facilities to be between 7,000 and 11,000. It is highly likely that the casualty rate at the physical sites will be close to 100 percent. Assuming an average two-shift operation, between 3,500 and 5,500 people would be present at the time of the strikes, most of whom would be killed or injured as a result of the physical and thermal impact of the blasts. If one were to include casualties at other targets, one could extrapolate to other facilities, in which case the total number of people killed and injured could exceed 10,000. To grasp the political and psychological impact of the strikes, what our estimates suggest is that the potential civilian casualties Iran would suffer as a result of a strike—in the first day—could match, and possibly exceed, the 6,731 Palestinians and 1,083 Israelis reportedly killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past decade.6 Bashar Assad’s ground assaults on civilians in Syrian cities—the massacres in Homs and beyond—have taken a daily toll in the tens and hundreds in over a year. Yet the daily toll from the massacres in Syria would pale before the potential sudden death of thousands of civilians from a massive air assault on targets throughout Iran. However, unlike traditional targets, the risks to civilians extend well beyond those killed from exposure to thermal and blast injuries at the nuclear sites. Tens, and quite possibly, hundreds of thousands of civilians could be exposed to highly toxic chemical plumes and, in the case of operational reactors, radioactive fallout.
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The United States could always go a step further and decide to use low-yield earth-penetrating nuclear weapons against such a target (or other, more deeply buried targets that we might not know about yet), but it would be extremely difficult to limit civilian casualties in the event of such an attack. Even a weapon with a yield of five kilotons, detonated roughly six meters underground (which is roughly the current penetrating depth of the most advanced U.S. bunker-busting nuclear weapon, the B61-11), would create a cloud of radioactive dust over an area of roughly three square miles. Since many of Iran's nuclear facilities are located close to civilian populations, significant numbers of noncombatants could be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
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Bushehr If the Bushehr nuclear-power reactor were operating, there would be enough plutonium in four spent fuel assemblies to produce a nuclear weapon. In the event of a military strike on Bushehr, Russian oversight would be lifted. The Iranians could remove the plutonium from these assemblies in a small chemical facility built for the purpose. This could be done relatively quickly - within a few weeks.A military attack would not destroy all the irradiated fuel elements completely. Some could be salvaged. However, it must be emphasised once again that to bomb the Bushehr reactor after it has started operating would have catastrophic consequences; it would create a second Chernobyl that would contaminate the region and far beyond.
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Air strikes on nuclear facilities would involve the destruction of facilities at the Tehran Research Reactor, together with the radioisotope production facility, a range of nuclear-related laboratories and the Kalaye Electric Company, all in Tehran. The Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre would be a major target, including a series of experimental reactors, uranium conversion facilities and a fuel fabrication laboratory. Pilot and full-scale enrichment plants at Natanz would be targeted, as would facilities at Arak (see Appendix 1).6 The new 1,000 MW reactor nearing completion at Bushehr would be targeted, although this could be problematic once the reactor is fully fuelled and goes critical some time in 2006. Once that has happened, any destruction of the containment structure could lead to serious problems of radioactive dispersal affecting not just the Iranian Gulf coast, but west Gulf seaboards in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. As well as the direct human effects, since these comprise the world’s most substantial concentration of oil production facilities, the consequences could be severe.
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It is very difficult to predict the level of Iranian military and civilian casualties, but two points may be made. The first is that, as in Iraq during the first three intense weeks of war, early civilian casualty reports will be incomplete and the full extent of casualties unlikely to come to light for several months. However, any reports of civilian casualties which do emerge would be widely disseminated by the Iranian media and by commercial media networks such as al-Jazeera elsewhere in the region. The second is that any surprise attack will catch many people, be they civilian or military, unawares and unprotected. There will be no opportunity for people to move away from likely target areas as was possible in the days and weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq.Military deaths in this first wave of attacks against Iran would be expected to be in the thousands, especially with attacks on air bases and Revolutionary Guard facilities. Civilian deaths would be in the many hundreds at least, particularly with the requirement to target technical support for the Iranian nuclear and missile infrastructure, with many of the factories being located in urban areas. If the war evolved into a wider conflict, primarily to pre-empt or counter Iranian responses, then casualties would eventually be much higher.
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The principle of proportionality then requires assessment of the means to accomplish the legitimate objective. Will the cost of achieving that objective in terms of civilian lives lost and destruction of civilian property and the natural environment exceed the value of the objective? As discussed above, bombing will have little value slowing the nuclear research program. Thus, any attack would disproportionately injure the nation's civilian population. Iran's nuclear research centers around seven geographic locations: Tehran, Lashkar Ab'ad, Natanz, Arak, Isfahan, Saghand in the Yazd Province, and Bushehr. Several of these locations are situated in densely populated areas. The "heart" of a potential nuclear arms program apparently involves several sites. Arak, a site "believed to be for the production of heavy water" located about "150 miles southwest of Tehran;" Bushehr, a complex on the Persian Gulf Coast whose first reactor is "nearing completion," and Natanz, "located 100 miles southeast of Tehran," which "will utilize hundreds of gas centrifuges to enrich uranium." Tehran, the capital city, is home to 8,601,473 of the country's 68,688,433 residents. Given the proximity of two of these key sites to this major city, it is difficult to see how even a conventional air attack would not result in significant casualties.