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Strike on Iran: will it harm the environment?
16.04.07
MOSCOW. (Yury Israel and Alexei Ryaboshapko for RIA Novosti) –

A potential bombing of Iran might destroy two groups of installations that could cause problems for the regional environment: radioactive depots and other nuclear facilities, and oil industry infrastructure, including wells, refineries and huge tanks.

To start with, we should try to figure out how many nuclear plants Iran has. Judging by publicly available information, it has none. Russian engineers are building the first unit of a nuclear pant in Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast, but it is still empty because Russia has not supplied it with fissionable materials.

Iran has at least one operating light water pool-type five-megawatt reactor, the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which was build by the United States in Tehran in 1967. The TRR used U.S.-supplied highly-enriched (93%) weapons-grade uranium. In 1992, the TRR was modernized to be able to use 20%-enriched uranium. The uranium mass in its core is 5.7 kg.

Argentina supplied Iran with 100 kg of 20%-enriched uranium for the TRR. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitored the reactor’s modernization and the transfer of the uranium. Incidentally, if this quantity of uranium is enriched to weapons-grade, it will be more than enough to produce one tiny bomb.

In addition to the TRR, in the last 30 years Iran has bought two reactors from France, six from Germany and several from China. Most probably, these are low-capacity impulse-based reactors for producing neutron beams.

International security requirements demand that a nuclear facility (a reactor or radioactive waste container) should be able to withstand the impact of a modern military turbine aircraft traveling at the speed of sound. But a direct hit by a cruise missile or free-fall bomb would destroy the protective cover, and radioactivity would leak into the air. A pool-type reactor, however, has a small core in a mass of water, which would prevent its overheating, the burning of structures, and huge radioactive emissions.

There is one more, unlikely option. If the reactor has the same nuclear cycle as the forth unit of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the initial radioactive emission following its instant destruction would be at most 0.5% (250,000 curies) of what was thrown into the air in the first minutes of the Chernobyl disaster (50 million curies). This may cause substantial local contamination but not a serious environmental problem on a regional scale.

It would be logical to predict that a centrifuge plant in the area of Isfahan would be one of the first targets, to prevent Iran from getting weapons-grade uranium. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that at present the plant is using 3,000 centrifuges (although recently it was believed to have only 328). We can assume that these centrifuges contain a total of no more than 150 grams of uranium with an average enrichment level of 1.5%. The activity of this amount of uranium in the 235/238 isotope range is about 5-10-5 curies. The plant occupies a big area, and in the event of destruction, hexafluoride would be immediately diluted with large amounts of air and instantly turn into solid tetrafluoride aerosols that could be carried by air currents over large distances. But the concentration of uranium would be negligible and could only harm the plant’s personnel.

Another possibility is that in the event of an American attack, Iran could launch its missiles at Israel’s nuclear facilities – it has enough medium-range carriers for that. It may decide to strike the big nuclear plant (150 megawatts) near Dimon, which experts believe is producing plutonium. A plant for radiochemical plutonium separation is nearby. Israel could retaliate with nuclear weapons; by some expert estimates, it has from 100 to 300 nuclear missile warheads and free-fall bombs. This scenario would result in a global nuclear disaster, and we should not forget that Israel is ready to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities in a preventive military operation.

To assess the environmental consequences of the oil industry’s destruction, we can recall what happened in Kuwait, where the retreating Iraqi army set fire to oil fields and refineries. Open oil fires threw enormous amounts of soot (up to one million metric tons) into the air, and some experts believed at the time that this could have an effect on the climate.

Many researchers studied this problem with ground-, air- and satellite-based equipment. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) examined the problem and issued its comprehensive Report of the Second Meeting of Experts to Assess the Response to and Atmospheric Effects of the Kuwait Oil Fires, in Geneva in 1992. The burning of huge amounts of oil over a relatively small area did not have any significant effect on the climate or the environment.

Yury Israel is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of the Institute of Global Climatology and Ecology.

Alexei Ryaboshapko, Ph.D., department head with the Institute of Global Climatology and Ecology.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.-0-