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A nuclear gamble

Interview: Farnaz Seifi / ncNovember 17, 2012

Attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities would kill tens of thousands of people in densely populated areas around the sites, a new study says. An attack at one site could have Chernobyl-like consequences.

An Iranian flag flutters in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010. Iranian and Russian engineers began loading fuel Saturday into Iran's first nuclear power plant, which Moscow has promised to safeguard to prevent material at the site from being used in any potential weapons production. (ddp images/AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Image: dapd

An attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would kill tens of thousands of people and severely damage the health of hundreds of thousands more, a study finds. "The Ayatollah's Nuclear Gamble" was published by the University of Utah and the “Iran Hope” Institute. The researchers assume that four nuclear sites - Natanz, Arak, Bushehr and Isfahan - would be targeted in a military attack.

DW: What made you research the consequences of a possible military attack on Iran's nuclear sites?

Khosro Semnani: As the Iranian nuclear dispute intensified in the last couple of years, we began to realize that the civilian repercussions of a military strike on the Iranian nuclear sites hadn't really been given much attention. That's why I decided this study was necessary. Some of the nuclear sites, such as the ones in Isfahan, are in fact located very close residential areas, some of which are densely populated. Any explosion would have devastating consequences.

You said that you conducted a scientific study. Which methods did you use?

Young girl with kite Photo: FARS
Tens of thousands of people would be at risk should an attack occurImage: FARS

We collected data from public institutions. Our computer-based models predicted the spread and extent of the radioactive contamination. We also incorporated existing studies by various US institutions.

Did you also incorporate data from the Iranian Nuclear Agency and reports by state and official Iranian institutions?

We only make use of publicly available data and facts. We also took into account reports published by the Iranian Nuclear Agency and checked their plausibility. Our team of researchers was, however, unable to make direct contact with the Iranian Nuclear Agency.

In your report, you draw a parallel with the Chernobyl disaster. What are the similarities?

We studied four nuclear sites. An attack on Bushehr would probably trigger a catastrophe of the same magnitude as the one in Chernobyl. The main reactor in Bushehr is of a similar make and size as the destroyed reactor in Chernobyl. Both were built by Russian engineers.

Your report concludes that tens of thousands of people would die as a result of a military attack. Who is most at risk?

Of course the first victims would be the employees, security guards and technicians working in the power plant. Depending on the degree of destruction, residential areas surrounding the power plants would also be threatened. The Isfahan nuclear site is particularly worrying, because the area surrounding it is so densely populated.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the conclusion of an annual pro-Palestinian rally Photo: AP
The Iranian leadership is not informing its citizens, Semnani saysImage: AP

You only studied four nuclear sites…

There are some 400 nuclear sites and institutions in Iran, which are directly or indirectly linked to the nuclear program. According to a report by the Swedish Defense Ministry, at least 20 of them constitute potential military targets.

What can the Iranian government do to minimize the damages of such a military attack?

The main problem is the prevailing censorship. The Iranian public lacks vital information. In an emergency, people wouldn't know what was happening in the nuclear sites and what the health risks might be. We believe that an attack on the processing plant in Isfahan would release some 550 tons of uranium hexafluoride, a highly toxic, radioactive chemical, which would evaporate and spread to residential areas outside of Isfahan. Even 5 percent of the 550 tons would kill tens of thousands of people, further tens of thousands would incur severe health damages.

Did your team try to speak to American and Israeli politicians about these scenarios?

We talked to American institutions and presented our findings to several think tanks. We hope that our study will also be made available to the Iranian public.

Khosro Semnani is the director of the “Iran Hope” Institute and heads the study's research team. He is based in Salt Lake City.