Osirak, also spelled Osiraq, (French: Osirak; Iraqi: Tammuz 1, اوسيراك), was a French-supplied 40 MW light-water nuclear materials testing reactor (MTR) in Iraq. It was constructed by the Iraqi government at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, 18 km (11 miles) south-east of Baghdad in 1977. It was damaged by an Iranian air strike in 1980 during the Iran–Iraq War, then crippled by Israeli aircraft in 1981 in a surprise attack code-named Operation Opera, which was intended to prevent the regime of Saddam Hussein from using the reactor for the creation of nuclear weapons. In September 1975, then-Vice President Hussein had declared publicly that the acquisition of the French reactor was the first step in the production of an Arab atomic weapon. The facility was completely destroyed by American aircraft during the 1991 Gulf War.
The materials test reactor (MTR) was a French design of a type called Osiris, named after the Egyptian god of the dead. The French named the reactor Osiraq, from "Osiris" + "Iraq" (French Osirak), and the Iraqis named it Tammuz 1, for the Babylonian month in which the Ba'ath Party took control of the Iraqi government in 1968.
In addition to the reactor, construction, and technical assistance, the French sold around 28 lb (12.5 kg) of 93% highly enriched uranium fuel (HEU), the usual fuel world-wide for research-type reactors at that time, to the Iraqi government.
The International Atomic Energy Agency monitored the handling of fuel for the Osirak reactor. Under IAEA supervision, the possible diversion of nuclear fuel or use of the reactor to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials was monitored. However, some who were familiar with the Iraqi nuclear monitoring agreement, including IAEA inspector Roger Richter, felt that the IAEA monitoring program was not adequate. Also, a danger existed that there could be disruption of IAEA monitoring of reactor fuel or use of the Osirak reactor to produce weapons-grade material such as plutonium. The IAEA reported that during the Gulf War, Iraq had a plan to divert highly enriched uranium research reactor fuel stored at the Tuwaitha facility for use in the production of a nuclear weapon. This plan to weaponize reactor fuel was never carried out. However, in 1991, the IAEA declared Iraq in violation of its nuclear safeguards agreement. In its reports on Iraq's nuclear weapon program, the Iraq Nuclear Verification Office concluded that the IAEA had, "removed all known weapon usable materials" from Iraq.
Many believed the reactor was part of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. The Iraqi government had tried and failed in 1974 to buy a French gas-graphite plutonium producing reactor and a reprocessing plant, and they had also failed in an attempt to buy an Italian Cirene reactor. France agreed to sell them the MTR and its associated laboratory equipment. Harvard University professor of physics Richard Wilson has dismissed claims that the reactor would have been usable for producing nuclear weapons.
The Israeli government was deeply concerned at this purchase. Despite Iraqi claims that the plant was for peaceful use, it was an unusual choice — an MTR design is useful for countries with established nuclear reactor construction programs, being used to test and analyse the effects of neutron flux upon metals used in reactor components. However, MTR is not particularly useful to countries which have no established reactor programs, unless they are interested in transmuting U238 to Pu239 to make a bomb, via the high neutron flux characteristic of an MTR.
The reactor used HEU fuel as standard. The substantial Iraqi purchases of uranium ore could be treated at the plant to produce plutonium, and the Iraq government had also purchased a fuel fabrication plant and a recovery "hot cell". Furthermore, Iraq was a leading oil and natural gas supplier, so their need for nuclear energy seemed unlikely.
Although most agreed that Iraq was years away from being able to build a nuclear weapon, the Iranians and the Israelis felt any raid must occur well before nuclear fuel was loaded to prevent radioactive contamination. Further, Israel's Menachem Begin feared that Israel's next elected government would not act until a nuclear weapon was created.
Iran attacked and damaged the site on September 30, 1980 with two F-4 Phantoms, shortly after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War. This was the first attack on a nuclear reactor and only the third on a nuclear facility in history of the world. It was also the first instance of a pre-emptive attack on a nuclear reactor to forestall the development of a nuclear weapon, though it did not achieve its objective as France repaired the reactor after the Iranian attack.
In Israel, intelligence agencies authorized an air strike based on the fear that Iraq would use the nuclear fuel to produce weapons. This took place on June 7, 1981, in what was known as Operation Opera. The Israeli Air Force launched a strike with eight F-16 multi-role fighters and six F-15s for escorts, which flew from Etzion Airbase.
Shortly after that, the northern Sinai base was vacated and returned to Egypt in accordance with the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. At the time, Etzion was Israel's southernmost airbase - the closest it had to Iraq. The strike force flew 680 miles (1,100 km) across Jordan, Saudi Arabia and into Iraq to bomb the target. Arriving at around 1730, the strike force quickly destroyed the reactor site and returned safely to Israel. Ten Iraqi soldiers and one French researcher were killed in the attack. It was supposed that the strike force evaded detection by flying close together so that instead of appearing as a squadron of small fighters on radar, they appeared as a single large jet, and not much attention was given to them.
Many foreign governments, including the United States, condemned the operation, and the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed UN Resolution 487, which “strongly condemns the military attack by Israel in clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct.”
The operation was also criticized by the Israeli left-wing opposition, who claimed that a major reason for the specific timing of the operation (as opposed to its necessity) was the proximity of the general elections only three weeks later. Begin had been behind in the polls, and it was felt that he wanted to appear as a strong leader. Following the strike, he did indeed reverse the trend and narrowly won the elections.
It is now known that during the strike preparations, one question affecting its timing was the estimated date on which the reactor would become “live”, after which a strike could cause radiation fallout on nearby civilians. That date was assumed to be just a few weeks later.
The original plan had called for a strike several months earlier. However, this was postponed at the last moment when it was leaked to opposition leader Shimon Peres, who secretly asked Begin about it. Begin decided to postpone the strike to ensure the leak did not present a security breach endangering the mission, but finally decided not to postpone any further than the actual strike date in June. To this day, Peres is critical of the strike for practical reasons, claiming it drove Iraq to enhance and hide its supposed WMD program.
Following the 1991 Gulf War, the allegations of a secret WMD program in Iraq and the Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel, several Israeli politicians (excluding Peres) and US representatives wrote a letter to Begin thanking him for the 1981 raid.
France declined to assist in the reconstruction of the reactor in 1984 after initially agreeing to provide technical help. The Iraqi nuclear weapons program was forced to turn to less efficient uranium enrichment processes such as electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS). The site was closed and held under IAEA supervision.
There are claims that the loss of the reactor was a serious blow to the Iraqi nuclear program. Alternatively, there is evidence that Osirak was not capable of producing nuclear weapons material. The reactor was inspected by Dr. Richard Wilson, chair of Harvard's physics department, within weeks of the bombing, and he reported that the reactor was incapable of weapons production. Indeed, it has been suggested that "the attack may have actually increased Saddam’s commitment to acquiring weapons."
Iraqi scientists Khidir Hamza and Imad Khadduri have supported this view, declaring that the consequence of the Israeli raid was to encourage Saddam Hussein to pursue the Iraq military nuclear program further, increasing the country's involvement:
…actually, what Israel [did] is that it got out the immediate danger out of the way. But it created a much larger danger in the longer range. What happened is that Saddam ordered us — we were 400… scientists and technologists running the program. And when they bombed that reactor out, we had also invested $400 million. And the French reactor and the associated plans were from Italy. When they bombed it out we became 7,000 with a $10 billion investment for a secret, much larger underground program to make bomb material by enriching uranium. We dropped the reactor out totally, which was the plutonium for making nuclear weapons, and went directly into enriching uranium… They [Israel] estimated we'd make 7 kg [15 lb] of plutonium a year, which is enough for one bomb. And they get scared and bombed it out. Actually it was much less than this, and it would have taken a much longer time. But the program we built later in secret would make six bombs a year.
(Khidir Hamza, "Crossfire transcript," CNN, February 7, 2003)
Similarly, The National Interest reported that the attack on the Tormuz Plant actually marked the beginning of Iraq's uranium-based plan. According to an article by Harvard physicist Wilson, "The Osirak reactor was destroyed in June 1981. It was not until early in July 1981 that Saddam Hussein personally released Dr. Jafar Dhia Jafar from house arrest and asked him to start and head the clandestine nuclear bomb program. The destruction of Osirak did not stop an Iraqi nuclear bomb program but probably started it. Worse still, the Israelis were so pleased with themselves that it appears that neither they nor the CIA looked for and understood the real direction of the Iraqi nuclear bomb program."
In February 2009, a group of Iraqi members of parliament started a campaign demanding that Israel pay billions of dollars in reparations for the 1981 attack. Mohammed Naji Mohammed, a representative of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, was leading the campaign.
When tensions in the Persian Gulf flared up in August 1990, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi government made efforts to recover components from the site. During the Gulf War several months later, the Iraqi nuclear program was put into high gear in order to create a weapon by using radioactive fuel. The site was then targeted by Coalition forces on January 17, 1991, halting the weapons program. Three days into the Desert Storm air raids, 56 F-16s attacked the facility followed by F-117 raids three days later. The facility, one of Iraq's most fortified targets, was not fully destroyed until another raid, when 48 F-16s targeted the facility 7 more times for over a month along with 17 F-111Fs weeks later. Only 19 days into the strikes did the US Defense Intelligence Agency find the site to be "severely degraded".