Israel Destroys Iraqi Nuclear Reactor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Claiming that Iraq was secretly planning to produce nuclear weapons, the Israeli government ordered warplanes to bomb and destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor.

Summary of Event

According to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor by Israeli warplanes in 1981 was necessary to prevent the Arabs from producing nuclear weapons. The Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo (1973-1974) had produced an energy crisis in the industrialized countries of the world. Transportation and industrial production were disrupted, and the cost of fuel rose to unprecedented levels as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) held back oil supplies. Efforts to reduce the importation of foreign oil, and to achieve energy independence, became a political goal. France, having almost no oil or coal resources of its own, embarked on an ambitious program of building nuclear power plants that were to supply virtually all of its electricity. Operation Opera Nuclear energy;reactors Osirak nuclear reactor Iraq;Osirak nuclear reactor [kw]Israel Destroys Iraqi Nuclear Reactor (June 7, 1981) [kw]Iraqi Nuclear Reactor, Israel Destroys (June 7, 1981) [kw]Nuclear Reactor, Israel Destroys Iraqi (June 7, 1981) Operation Opera Nuclear energy;reactors Osirak nuclear reactor Iraq;Osirak nuclear reactor [g]Middle East;June 7, 1981: Israel Destroys Iraqi Nuclear Reactor[04550] [g]Iraq;June 7, 1981: Israel Destroys Iraqi Nuclear Reactor[04550] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 7, 1981: Israel Destroys Iraqi Nuclear Reactor[04550] Begin, Menachem Hussein, Saddam Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;Osirak nuclear reactor Peres, Shimon Sadat, Anwar el- Mitterrand, François

In 1974, India had exploded an atomic bomb. Plutonium fuel for the bomb had come from a nuclear reactor that India had purchased from Canada, supposedly for the production of electricity. It came as a shock that a developing country had the technical expertise to build a bomb if they could buy the necessary nuclear materials; because India had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968)[Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] (NPT), there had been no international inspections of the country’s nuclear program.





In 1976, France and Iraq agreed to a multimilliondollar contract for a large research reactor, named Osirak, to be built near Baghdad. The chief negotiators were Jacques Chirac, the prime minister of France, and Saddam Hussein, then the deputy chairman of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council. Chirac wanted closer economic ties with the Arabs so as to assure France’s future oil imports. Hussein’s stated goals for Iraq were industrial modernization, economic development, and a military buildup to oppose the “Zionist entity,” as he called Israel. The reactor contract included a training program for Iraqi technicians to learn to operate the nuclear facilities.

The technology for producing weapons-grade plutonium from uranium was developed during World War II at Hanford, Washington. Uranium, after being irradiated for several months in a reactor, turns into highly radioactive fuel rods which are taken to a “hot cell” and dissolved in acid, releasing plutonium. The procedure, called reprocessing, is done by remote control behind thick shielding walls, to protect the workers from radiation.

Drawing on its oil revenue, Iraq negotiated a contract with an Italian firm to build and equip three radiochemistry laboratories. The ostensible purpose was research on fuel element fabrication for nuclear power plants. The U.S. government was, however, concerned about the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. Although President Jimmy Carter had been successful in bringing Egypt and Israel together for the historic Camp David Peace Accords Camp David Peace Accords (1978) in 1978, his effort to dissuade France and Italy from delivering their sophisticated nuclear technology to Iraq did not succeed.

In 1979, the shah of Iran was overthrown, and the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power as the head of a fundamentalist Islamic regime. In the same year, Saddam Hussein emerged as president of Iraq and chairman of the powerful Revolutionary Command Council. About the same time, the fuel rods and other components for the Osirak reactor core, which were ready to be shipped from France to Iraq, were destroyed by an explosion. It was clearly an act of sabotage (suspicion pointed to Israeli agents or possibly French antinuclear activists), but the reactor core was rebuilt and delivered to Baghdad one year later.

By 1980, when a dispute over oil fields at the Iran-Iraq border escalated into a war that was to last for eight years, Hussein was revealed to be not only a ruthless dictator at home but also an aggressive militarist against his neighbors. Prime Minister Begin had become convinced that Hussein must be stopped from obtaining nuclear weapons, for he feared that the people of Israel could become the victims of another holocaust. Since neither persuasion nor sabotage had succeeded in preventing the Osirak project, he decided, in 1981, that a direct strike against the reactor structure was necessary.

The United States, which had long been committed to supplying Israel with weapons for its military defense, had sent a shipment of new F-16 fighter-bomber planes in 1980, which had an extended range just long enough to make the thirteen-hundred-mile round-trip from Israel to Baghdad. The Israeli Air Force planned the bombing mission using eight F-16 planes, each carrying two two-thousand-pound bombs under its wings. Several F-15 fighter planes accompanied the bombers in case of attack by enemy aircraft. Israeli pilots were trained to fly at a low altitude in order to decrease their likelihood of detection by radar, although the chosen flight path to Baghdad was along the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where radar surveillance was relatively light.

The attack was scheduled to take place in the early evening, when the setting sun would make it hard to see planes coming in from the West and most of the personnel would have left the site. The exact location of the reactor, about fifteen miles from the city, was easy to spot from the air, especially since nearby structures, including antiaircraft gun installations, were known from earlier surveillance flights.

Begin himself gave the order to attack in June, 1981, and the mission proceeded according to plan. The Israeli planes were not detected on the way to Baghdad and were not intercepted on their return flight. According to eyewitness accounts from a French technician, the bombs hit their target with pinpoint accuracy. The first several bombs blasted a hole in the outer concrete containment shell. Succeeding bombs entered through this hole into the reactor building and exploded inside. Finally, two planes with cameras took pictures of the damage, showing that the roof had collapsed and the reactor core had been hit. There was one casualty, a French technician who was crushed by debris, but no radioactivity was released to the environment because the reactor had not yet gone into operation.


International reaction strongly condemned the Israeli raid. Margaret Thatcher, Thatcher, Margaret the British prime minister, criticized the attack as “a grave breach of international law.” U.S. president Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald ordered a halt on the further delivery of F-16 planes to Israel. Arab diplomats asked the United Nations to impose sanctions against Israel. Iraq defiantly vowed to build bigger and better reactors. Even within Israel there was criticism of the bombing. During a parliamentary election that month, Begin was accused by the opposition Labor Party of planning the raid to help his reelection chances.

It is uncertain whether the Iraqi reactor was a threat at the time it was bombed. Iraq had ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1972, agreeing to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities and promising not to build weapons, and the International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) claimed that the Iraqis had not been building a bomb. The NPT has loopholes, however. For example, a country can operate its reactors legally until a quantity of plutonium has accumulated in the core, then rescind their NPT commitment, extract the plutonium, and build a bomb.

U.S. intelligence agencies estimated that Iraq could have had nuclear weapons within two to ten years by annulling the NPT agreement. Moreover, the behavior of the Iraqi government in subsequent years demonstrated that it was working on a variety of chemical and biological weapons in addition to nuclear weapons in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Iraq had already demonstrated its capability of producing chemical weapons Chemical weapons Weapons;chemical and its willingness to use them by deploying such weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran Iraq War] of the 1980’s and against its own Kurdish population in 1989. U.N. inspections following the 1991 Persian Gulf War inhibited Iraqi efforts to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, but the programs continued clandestinely, provoking bombings of Iraq by Bill Clinton’s Clinton, Bill presidential administration in 1998 and furnishing a major justification for the full-scale invasion of Iraq by President George W. Bush Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;Iraq War (beg. 2003) in 2003. Operation Opera Nuclear energy;reactors Osirak nuclear reactor Iraq;Osirak nuclear reactor

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fainberg, Anthony. “Osirak and International Security.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 37 (October, 1981): 33-36. Critical of the Israeli raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. The author, a U.S. physicist, argues that regular inspections by the IAEA, plus the on-site presence of French technicians, were sufficient to prevent diversion of nuclear material for weapons production.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karsch, Efraim, and Inari Rautsi. Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography. Rev. ed. New York: Grove Press, 2002. Authoritative biography by two European specialists on Middle Eastern affairs. Traces Hussein’s life from its rural origin to his rapid rise in the Iraqi political system and documents his dictatorial tactics in Baghdad and military aggression against neighboring Iran and Kuwait.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perlmutter, Amos, Michael Handel, and Uri Bar-Joseph. Two Minutes over Baghdad. Rev. ed. London: Frank Cass, 2003. Presents the story of “Operation Babylon,” which destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and gives many fascinating details about the bombing mission, as well as an overview of the clandestine nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, G., et al. “Attack and Fallout: Israel Blasts Iraq’s Reactor and Creates a Global Shock Wave.” Time, June 22, 1981, 24-29. A detailed description of the Israeli bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Includes photographs of military and civilian leaders in both countries, as well as quotations from their public speeches. Well-written, factual reporting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spector, Leonard D. Nuclear Proliferation Today. New York: Random House, 1984. Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this book provides a thorough discussion of potential nuclear bomb production in eight “emergent” countries, including Iraq and Israel. Examines the role of the IAEA as the inspection agency for nuclear facilities. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strasser, Steven, et al. “A Risky Nuclear Game.” Newsweek, June 22, 1981, 20-27. Detailed report on how Israel planned and carried out its attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Includes diagrams of the reactor complex, the F-16 fighter/bomber plane, a map of the flight plan, and background information on the political situation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weissman, Steve, and Herbert Krosney. The Islamic Bomb: The Nuclear Threat to Israel and the Middle East. New York: Times Books, 1981. Presents detailed information about the efforts of several Middle Eastern nations to obtain nuclear weapons. Charges France and Italy, for selling nuclear technology with insufficient safeguards, with responsibility for weapons proliferation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wohlstetter, Albert, et al. Swords from Plowshares: The Military Potential of Civilian Nuclear Energy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Explains how power reactors generate plutonium as a by-product, which can be extracted and used for weapons. Wohlstetter’s analysis influenced the Carter administration to restrict nuclear exports and reprocessing technology.

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Categories: History