The Iraqi Nuclear Horn: Daniel 8

Iraq looks to revive its nuclear programme

15 June 2021 

Iraq is working on a plan to build nuclear reactors in face of widespread blackouts that have sparked social unrest, Bloomberg reported on 8 June. Despite being OPEC’s second biggest oil producer, Iraq is suffering from power shortages and insufficient investment in ageing plants, and needs to meet an expected 50% jump in demand by the end of the decade. Building NPPs could help to close the supply gap.

Iraq is seeking to build eight reactors capable of producing about 11 gigawatts, said Kamal Hussain Latif, chairman of the Iraqi Radioactive Sources Regulatory Authority (IRSRA). It would look for funding from prospective partners for the $40 billion plan and pay back the costs over 20 years, he said.

Falling oil prices in 2020 deprived Iraq of funds to maintain and expand its long-neglected electricity system. The resulting outages triggered protests that threatened to topple the government.

“We have several forecasts that show that without nuclear power by 2030, we will be in big trouble,” Latif said in an interview at his office in Baghdad. Not only is there the power shortage and surge in demand to deal with, but Iraq is also trying to cut emissions and produce more water via desalination “issues that raise the alarm for me.”

Latif said the Iraqi cabinet is reviewing an agreement with Russia’s Rosatom to cooperate in building reactors. South Korean officials this year said they wanted to help build the plants and offered the Iraqis a tour of reactors in the United Arab Emirates run by Korea Electric Power Company (Kepco). Latif said the nuclear authority has also spoken with French and US officials about the plan.

Bloomberg cited a company official as saying Kepco was not aware of Iraq’s nuclear plans and has not been in touch with Iraqi officials or been asked to work on any projects there . Rosatom declined to comment when asked about an agreement with Iraq.

Even if Iraq builds the planned number of power stations, that still won’t be sufficient to cover future consumption. The country already faces a 10GWe gap between capacity and demand and expects to need an additional 14GWe this decade, Latif said. Iraq, therefore, plans to build enough solar plants to generate a similar amount of power to the nuclear programme by the end of the decade.

Iraq currently has access to 18.4GWe of electricity, including 1.2GWe imported from Iran. Capacity additions mean generation will rise to around 22GWe by August, still short of notional demand that stands at almost 28GWe under normal conditions. Peak usage during the hot months of July and August exceeds 30GWe, according to the Electricity Ministry. Demand will hit 42GWe by 2030, Latif said.

The nuclear authority has selected 20 potential sites for the reactors and Latif suggested that the first contracts could be signed in the coming year.

In April, Latif told the Iraqi News Agency (INA) that a meeting with US officials had been requested through an authorised high-level delegation and other government agencies. “We are looking for common ground with our partners in this preliminary phase that precedes the bidding stage,” he said. Saaran Al-Aajibi, a member of the Parliamentary Security and Defence Committee, said he was hopeful Iraq will build nuclear reactors similar to those of its neighbours. He told Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed in April that the reactors would be for peaceful purposes. While Aajibi emphasised the benefits of new nuclear reactors he said that that the infrastructure required will put a strain on the government’s finances. Iraq suffered more than a decade of violence and upheaval after the 2003 US invasion, which destroyed much of its infrastructure.

Last September, IRSRA said Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi had ordered the formation of a committee tasked to build a nuclear research reactor. The research reactor would be used to help produce medical isotopes and pharmaceuticals, and used in agricultural and industrial applications, and construction would take approximately five years, Latif said. He told INA that Iraq was “looking forward to restoring its position in nuclear science, which it occupied in the 1970s and 1980s”.

Iraq’s nuclear activities began in 1956 encouraged by the US Atoms for Peace programme, with the establishment of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission and acquisition of the 2MW IRT-5000 research reactor from the Soviet Union in 1962. Iraq signed Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968 and ratified it in 1969. Iraq developed extensive nuclear expertise and infrastructure, including three research reactors. However, key facilities were damaged or destroyed first in 1981 by an Israeli air strike and then in 2003 by US bombing. Former President Saddam Hussein sponsored nuclear weapons development during the 1970s in violation of the NPT until 1991 Gulf War, after which the nuclear programme was subject to stringent international oversight and weapons development ceased.

Iraq had initially pursued the plutonium pathway to weapons, acquiring two research reactors from France in 1976 (the larger 40MWt Osiraq reactor, or Tammuz I, and the smaller 800KWt Isis reactor, or Tammuz II), as well as a fuel manufacturing facility and a pilot plutonium separation and handling laboratory from the Italian firm SNIA-Techint in 1979. All these facilities, apart from the hot cells, were placed under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

Israel bombed the Osiraq facility in 1981, destroying the reactor core before it achieved criticality. Statements from scientists involved in the programme said this shifted Iraq’s strategy from openly acquiring a latent capability to produce and recover plutonium for weapons to covertly developing a uranium enrichment capability at undeclared facilities.

Over the next decade Iraq pursued several enrichment methods. In 1987 a Yugoslav firm was contracted to build a facility in Al-Tarmiya north of Baghdad to produce 15kg of weapons-grade uranium a year using electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS). A second EMIS facility was built at Ash Sharqat, northwest of Baghdad.

Work on the gaseous diffusion, which began at Tuwaitha in 1982, was later moved to a site near Rashdiya in northern Baghdad. This was intended to produce low enriched uranium (LEU) feedstock for the EMIS programme but was abandoned in 1987/88 in favour of gas-centrifuges. Iraq reportedly was assisted by centrifuge experts associated with West German firms but the prospect of a US military response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait stalled progress, and in 1990 Iraqi scientists were directed instead to recover safeguarded highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the French- and Russian-supplied research reactors.

The Gulf War ended in 1991 with UNSC Resolution 687 directing the IAEA to find and dismantle Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme, and ensure compliance with the NPT through comprehensive verification. By October 1997 the IAEA had completed 30 inspections, overseeing the dismantling of nuclear facilities, and removal of all weapons-usable nuclear material from Iraq, while other nuclear materials were placed under IAEA control.

Iraq ceased co-operation with IAEA in 1998 and but permitted verification to resume in 2002 in an attempt to prevent a US-led invasion based on allegations that it had weapons of mass destruction. Although Iraq had retained its nuclear expertise, IAEA said three months of intrusive inspections revealed “no evidence or plausible indications of the revival of a nuclear weapon programme in Iraq”. However, the invasion took place regardless. In 2004, the US Central Intelligence Agency’s Iraq Survey Group (ISG), tasked with uncovering evidence of WMD programmes, also concluded there was no evidence to suggest a coordinated effort to restart Iraq’s nuclear programme.

Iraq has since shown support for the nonproliferation regime, including ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol in 2012. Earlier actions, including provisional implementation of the Additional Protocol, led the UNSC to lift restrictions on Iraq’s nuclear activities in 2010.

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