Khosrow B. Semnani presented sobering findings from his ground-breaking report, “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble: The Human Cost of Military Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities,” at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC on Oct. 12, 2012. His report takes on a largely overlooked issue in the public debate in the U.S. and Israel over the wisdom of using military force to try to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Semnani, an Iranian-American physicist and engineer who lives in Utah, has extensive experience in the industrial management of nuclear waste and chemicals. He was horrified, he said, when he heard about a possible military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, especially in Isfahan, Natanz, Bushehr and Arak. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified an inventory of at least 371 metric tons of highly toxic uranium hexafluoride stored at Iran’s nuclear facilities. Semnani believes the release of this material at sites that are only a few miles from major population centers warrants a careful assessment. He set out to calculate the civilian casualties and environmental consequences of a military strike on each of the Iranian nuclear facilities.
Using projections based on the effect of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, Semnani estimated that scores of innocent people in Iran and neighboring Persian Gulf countries would be exposed to highly toxic chemical plumes. In the case of operational reactors, radioactive fallout would be far more devastating than the worst nuclear accidents in history.
Immediate casualties of an attack would be close to 100 percent of the 10,000 scientists, soldiers and others working at the facilities. Tens, and quite possibly hundreds, of thousands of civilians would also be exposed to highly toxic chemical plumes. These plumes would destroy their lungs, blind them, and severely burn their skin, and damage other tissues and vital organs.
Semnani analyzed the effects of attacks on Isfahan, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. In one hour many of the 352,000 residents living in or near Isfahan would be exposed to the toxic plume. “If we assume a conservative casualty rate of 5 to 20 percent of those people,” he said, “we can expect casualties between 12,000 and 70,000 people.” Airborne uranium compounds would also enter into water, soil and the food chain, he warned.
Semnani said he wondered why no one is focused on the effects of a military attack—including Iranians, who are not well informed about how their government could defend these facilities or what their emergency response would be in the case of an attack. Iranian leaders have not provided their people with an assessment of the grave implications of their government’s nuclear policies, Semnani opined, not to mention the economic toll that has already devastated the Iranian people. “The Iranian people lack an effective role in the nuclear debate,” Semnani added. They need to be informed of the dangers of having “hot” nuclear facilities nearby.
Semnani also warned that a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would implicate the two countries in the man-made nuclear disaster that would follow. Winds would carry radioactive material across the Persian Gulf to contaminate Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and other countries along the southern coast. Attacks could have catastrophic regional consequences, including the contamination of water in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, as well as desalination plants in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Semnani’s study can be downloaded for free at Ayatollahs Nuclear Gamble
His subsequent article, “The Next Chernobyl?,” published in the Jan. 2 New York Times, describes another “nuclear wild card.” Bushehr, which experts agree isn’t weaponizing nuclear energy but just producing electricity, sits on an active fault line and has experienced ongoing technical problems. A meltdown there could inflict severe damage in southern Iran and also on its Gulf neighbors.
—Delinda C. Hanley