Historical examples of military strikes on nuclear plants include the following:

  • Israel’s destruction of a research reactor in Iraq in 1981.
  • the US destruction of two smaller research reactors in Iraq in 1991.
  • attempted military strikes by Iraq and Iran on each other’s nuclear facilities during the 1980-88 war.
  • Iraq’s attempted missile strikes on Israel’s nuclear facilities in 1991.
  • Israel’s bombing of a suspected nuclear plant in Syria in 2007.

Osiraq research reactor site destroyed by an Israeli bomb strike in 1981.

Most of the above examples have been motivated by attempts to prevent WMD proliferation. Nuclear plants might also be targeted with the aim of widely dispersing radioactive material or, in the case of power reactors, disrupting electricity supply.

If and when nuclear-powered nations go to war, they will have to choose between shutting down their power reactors, or taking the risk of attacks potentially leading to widespread, large-scale dispersal of radioactive materials.

Garwin (2001) poses these questions: “What happens with a failed state with a nuclear power system? Can the reactors be maintained safely? Will the world (under the IAEA and U.N. Security Council) move to guard nuclear installations against theft of weapon-usable material or sabotage, in the midst of chaos? Not likely.”

There are examples of IAEA safeguards being suspended in the event of war or domestic political turmoil, including Iraq in 1991, some African states, and Yugoslavia.