The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble: The Human Cost of Military Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities
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Isfahan is one of Iran’s cultural and historic jewels. Indeed, the center of the city, built by the Safavid King Shah Abbas, has been designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO.111 Justifying the decision to protect Isfahan as a World Heritage site, UNESCO cited the site’s authenticity and integrity: “Monuments, buildings and spaces that constitute this complex might individually be losers in a competition with unique world heritage properties, but are unrivaled in the world as an ensemble! Thus it requires to be included as a World Heritage site in order to make rehabilitation policies and programs realized.”112 In addition to the architectural splendor of its city center, there are more than 20,000 historical and cultural sites in Isfahan. An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would destroy a city and a tradition that have been integral to Iran’s history and heritage for centuries. The city would be covered under a toxic and radioactive shroud that would render it unlivable. The price of such a loss amounts to the stripping away of the Iranian people’s historic, religious, and cultural identity. Instead of opening up Iran to the world so that millions could benefit from the cultural and artistic flowering of Iranian civilization, the Ayatollah’s nuclear gamble threatens to transform Isfahan, one of the marvels of human civilization, into a nuclear and chemical wasteland.
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Although they did not focus on Bushehr as a likely target, in “A Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Development Facilities” published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in March 2009, Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan predicted the highest level of environmental damage would come from an attack on the Bushehr Nuclear Plant.143 They estimate the damage from an attack on an operational nuclear facility can cause casualties in the hundreds of thousands. Drawing on Bennett Ramberg’s “Destruction of Nuclear Facilities in War,” they point out that the release of highly radioactive actinide and uranium fuel fission products resulting from the fission process would lead to the release of iodine-131, strontium-90, cesium-137, and activation production material, plutonium-239, all of which are “most damaging to human health” since they attack critical organs such as the lungs, thyroid, bones, tissues, organs, and cells.144 In fact, according to this study, more than 300 radioisotopes can be released into the environment, over 40 of which are produced in abundance and have a significant half-life. These radioactive particles can contaminate the body through clothing and skin, or through wounds. They can be inhaled as dust, or ingested through food and water. Once released, it is very hard to contain their damage as they can have a “physical half-life ranging from eight days to 24,400 years, and a biological half-life ranging from 138 to 500 days.”145 As the CSIS study warns, “Any strike on the Bushehr Nuclear Reactor will cause the immediate death of thousands of people living in or adjacent to the site, and thousands of subsequent cancer deaths or even up to hundreds of thousands depending on the population density along the contamination plume.”146
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In March 2012, The New York Time reported that a simulation of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure had predicted that an attack would lead to a wider regional war that could draw the Unites States in and leave hundreds of American soldiers dead.185 Earlier that same month, Meier Dagan, former head of the Mossad, warned that an Israel attack on Iran would “ignite a regional war,” which he predicted would end in the death of Israeli citizens.186 Dagan called the idea of attacking Iran the “stupidest thing ever.” Similar predictions have come from the Persian Gulf states. In his 2007 study “The Implications on Gulf States of Any American Military Operation against Iran,” Colonel Salem al Jaber warned that Iran would respond to military strikes attacking “all U.S. allies in the region, especially the Gulf states.”187 Jaber also cautioned that Iran would also likely launch missile strikes on American bases in the Gulf, which include locations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and The United Arab Emirates.
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The Osirak analogy is the fantasy that there will be no blowback from strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. It discounts the complexity, severity, scale, consequences, and casualties such an operation would entail. Iran’s nuclear program is not an empty shell, nor is it a single remote target. The facilities in Iran are fully operational, they contain thousands of personnel, they are located near major population centers, they are heavily constructed and fortified, and thus difficult to destroy. They contain tons of highly toxic chemical and radioactive material. 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 exceed the 6,731 Palestinians and 1,083 Israeli’s reported killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past decade.182 The total number of fatalities in the 1981 Osirak raid was 10 Iraqis and one French civilian, Damien Chaussepied. As Bob Woodward wrote in his book, State of Denial, far from ending Iraq’s nuclear program, the Israeli raid acted as a spur. It led Saddam Hussein to initiate a covert program to develop a nuclear bomb.183
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Rather than planning a military attack that can have more than 400 aim points, and result in the devastation of Isfahan, it is time to recognize that the Iranian people pose a far greater threat to the Islamic Republic than the U.S. or Israeli military power. While President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have repeatedly stated that they do not view the Iranian people as the enemies of the United States and Israel, the scale of the casualties resulting from military strikes will allow the Ayatollah, and other extremists, to portray them as aggressors: enemies of Iran, the Islamic world and humanity. It is time to adopt a strategy that recognizes that the Iranian people are the primary victims—not the defenders—of the Ayatollah’s policies. It is they, and not the United States and Israel, who are the hostages of the Islamic Republic’s tyranny and terrorism. Discounting the impact of massive military strikes on their lives and their future is a moral and strategic failure of the highest order.
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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.