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That Israeli raid on the Iraqi reactor: the facts -- and deeper issues; Using treaties, not air strikes, to halt nuclear spread

The recent Israeli air attack on the Iraqi nuclear research center near Baghdad raises questions for developing countries that go far beyond the antagonism of the two countries directly involved.

Developing countries naturally try to build up their specific, technical, and industrial base. And although nuclear physics, nuclear chemistry, nuclear medicine, and nuclear electric power may not be the most important activities, they do have considerable prestige. Many developing countries, therefore, want to engage in these pursuits and this has been encouraged internationally for 25 years.

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The problem arises when a century wishes to build a research reactor for producing isotopes for medicine or for activation analysis. Many such reactors are fueled with uranium of the same high isotopic purity as is used for making a uranium bomb. The diversion of a quantity of this fuel, usually two or more fuel loads, could provide the fuel for one bomb.

And whatever uranium of the ordinarily abundant isotope uranium 238 is placed in a flux of neutrons, plutonium is produced. Plutonium can be separated from impurities by chemical separation; this is simpler, quicker, and cheaper than the physical separation necessary to separate the uranium isotopes.

A chemical "hot lab" where highly radioactive materials are processed -- such as the one that Italy was providing to Iraq -- could be used for this purpose. Therefore a research reactor can be used to make fuel for a bomb. This is a crucial step in constructing a bomb.

In order to prevent such misuse, over 100 nations have signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They have renounced their right to build nuclear weapons and have agreed to allow their nuclear facilities to be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that such diversion or misuse does not take place.

Iraq has signed this treaty. I know of no tangible indications that Iraq is not following its dictates. I have discussed this with prominent French scientists and diplomats, the US State Department, and the IAEA, and they give me no such indications either.

The most likely purpose, therefore, of the Osirak reactor bombed by the Israelis was to enable Iraq to become the foremost research center of the Arab world, an Arab MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and to help make Baghdad the scientific and cultural center that it was centuries ago.

Some may scoff and say that the Iraqi government is too dictatorial to run such as enterprise. But good research facilities attract good scientists who, in turn, demand the freedom of expression they need. Furthermore, the Arab world is large enough to have many good scientists, and the Osirak reactor is smaller than the reactor at Institut Laue- Langevin, an international nuclear research center located at Grenoble, France, which does outstanding work particularly in biology, medicine, and chemistry.

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For over a year Israeli newspapers have declared that Iraq was preparing to make a nucler bomb with French and Italian help. I have asked leading Israeli scientists, including Prof. Yuuval Neeman, former scientific director of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, if they had any tangible evidence of this. Neither the scientists nor the newspapers nor the government have produced any.

Yet many commentators continue to state that one "fact" stands out: That Iraqi was planning to build a bomb. The evidence adduced is that the reactor itself is unneeded, the hot lab unncessary, and the raw uranium has no other purpose.

But there is at least one possible explanation: The US has been such a bureaucratic fuel supplier to the world that there could also be contigency plans to manufacture replacement fuel for peaceful use of the reactor.

If we accept that there was a contingency plan to build a bomb, this is disturbing -- just as military exercises are disturbing. The correct response, however, is increased vigilance by the IAEA.

Of course any signatory to the NPT can abrogate it at any time. No signatory has yet abrogated the treaty, but there is always a fear that one might withdraw. But even the it is widely agreed that the threat is not immediate. Changes would have to be made in the reactor to allow it to be an efficient plutonium producer. Iraq would not get enough plutonium for a bomb before 18 months.

Breaking a treaty is never taken lightly, but there is no international agreement on what to do if the treaty is abrogated. Presumably the world could stop Iraq's supply of raw uranium or take other action or, as a last resort, intervene militarily. But to take military action before there is a sign of treaty-breaking seems exaggerated, especially when the action is taken by a nation that has itself obstinately refused to sign the treaty.

The recent attack by Israel must be considered in the light of the background that Israel has always felt beleaguered -- and that the reactor supplied to Iraq by France is similar to the Dimona reactor supplied to Israel for peaceful purposes. Foreigners are not allowed to visit Dimona, and its operations are not inspected by IAEA. It is widely believed that the Israeli reactor has been used to manufacture plutonium for atomic bombs at first using stolen uranium but now using uranium from South Africa. If so, it is not surprising that Israel feels that Iraq would do the same.

The vital distinction is that Iraq has agreed to international inspection and has encouraged the presence of French technicians.

Israel, and one IAEA inspector who resigned, claim that the international inspection procedures are inadequate and that a bomb could be made clandestinely without detection. If so, the inspection procedures should be improved. The IAEA, and the 150 countries that have agreed to inspection, should listen carefully.

For example one might ask for more unscheduled, "surprise" inspections in special circumstances -- such as when one country is at war, when there are suspicious "other" circumstances such as purchases of raw uranium with no obvious peaceful use, or when several signatories to the NPT request them. We should encourage "natural" inspection -- such as by the French technicians, whose presence Iraq has approved until 1989, or better still be cooperation with visiting scientists of international stature. I am sure that the reactor at Grenoble, France, is not producing plutonium because I have seen the relevant parts and can see them at any time.

The developing nations have been reluctant to allow as rigorous an inspection and safeguard system as some of the developed countries have wanted. They considere safeguards to be an invasion of sovereignty, and the NPT already too unequal in the advantages it gives developed nations compared with developing nations. But it is to the advantage of the developing nations to make it obvious that their activities are peaceful.

The recent action shows the depth of Israeli fears -- fears that must be allayed no matter how irrational. This can be done by a willingness to allow improvements and extentions to the inspection procedures, and by international agreement on how to counter treaty violations. Thus worldwide support can be attained to prevent attacks.

In exchange for agreement that non- weapon states will not make nuclear weapons, Section IV of the NPT enjoys all parties, particularly nuclear-weapons states, to cooperate in nuclear-energy development for peaceful purposes. The Soviet Union, Britain, and the US are expected to encourage Iraq in any reasonable peaceful use. They cannot, therefore, condone the Israeli attack without violating their treaty obligations.

If it were not for this importan obligation, the destruction of an industrial or research facility of one country by another nation with which it is at war merits no especial attention. But third-world nations consider Section IV to be the most important of IAEA's functions. If we wish to give up this part of the treaty, the signatories will be released from obligations not to make nuclear weapons and proliferation may well begin in earnest.

Some feel that no inspection system can be adequate. If we believe this, we should abandon the NPT. An alternative might be to allow any country that feels beleaguered to prevent its neighbors from pursuing anym activity that might help them in a nuclear war.

We all live in this world and can all be destroyed by nuclear war. The steps to prevent nuclear war must be international and must not be taken by one nation alone. We should not let it appear that Israel is the world's policeman. If one nation is allowed to take such a step, particularly a military attac k, resulting lack of trust will bring world war closer.

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