Nuclear Targets

LOS ANGELES -- Nuclear facilities as military targets? The drumbeat appears to be growing louder. Western leaders repeatedly declare that no option is off the table to stem Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And, in mid-November, London’s Sunday Times reported that Israel put defenses around its Dimona nuclear reactor on “red alert” 30 times, as worries grew that Syria would avenge Israel’s September attack on a suspected nuclear site in Syria.

Israel’s fear reflects the region’s unique history. Since World War II, strikes to halt nuclear activities have taken place exclusively in the Middle East: Iraq was struck by Iran (1980), Israel (1981), and the United States (1991, 2003), while Iraq bombed Iran (1984-87) and Israel (1991). But raids never generated significant radiological consequences, because plants were under construction, contained inconsequential amounts of nuclear material, had radioactive elements removed prior to the attack, or because the attacker missed the mark.

A successful strike on Dimona, however, would be another matter. So, given the threat of radioactive releases, does the plant’s continued operation outweigh the risks?

Dimona is unique. It is the region’s largest nuclear plant and sole producer of atomic weapons materials. Since it went into operation in the mid-1960’s, it has generated elements for an estimated 200 nuclear weapons. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, inaugurated the enterprise to compensate for Israel’s strategic vulnerability, a fledgling army, and the West’s unwillingness to enter into a formal alliance to defend the Jewish state.