The Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in 2011 following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
But using unmanned vehicles (UMVs) laden with explosives could lead to a critical Fukushima-style reactor meltdown.
The revelation comes as diplomatic efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions continue to flounder, with former Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi last night warning: “The Iran nuclear deal is already on life-support and it is very possible that it might falter altogether due to Iran’s shameless violations.”
Detailed analysis of its 22 nuclear facilities by Dr Bahram Ghiassee, of the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, found that all except the Fordow fuel enrichment plant, near Qom – built into a mountain – are vulnerable to drone strikes which could incapacitate them.
And burying the Fordow facility under 60 metres of rock does not protect it from attacks on air shafts and other external supply systems.
While many facilities would result in little overall impact if attacked, there are glaring exceptions, the report found.
These include the conversion plant at the Esfahan nuclear technology centre – a critical part of the nuclear fuel cycle – and the Bushehr nuclear power plant on the Persian Gulf.
Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant
Satellite image of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant
The same applies to the Natanz enrichment facility now being rebuilt into a mountain after an explosion – believed to have been caused by Israel – destroyed the previous overland structure.
Though nuclear power plants are built to withstand light aerial attacks, Bushehr’s ancillary facilities “are highly vulnerable to aerial attacks, including drone strikes”, said the report, including by “commercially available as ‘Surface UMVs’ and ‘Submersible UMVs’, with an operating range of some 120 kilometres. “
However, Dr Ghiassee, a nuclear consultant, added: “A synchronised attack on the cooling water facilities, external electricity supply and electricity distribution systems could lead to the overheating of the reactor core and the spent fuel ponds.
“Under such circumstances, as in the Fukushima nuclear accident, the reactor core could melt down.”
Attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities are not a new phenomenon.
The Natanz enrichment facility in 2007.
The Natanz enrichment facility is now being rebuilt into a mountain.
The Bushehr power plant was attacked by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, though this caused minor damage.
More recently, Iran has been the recipient of incapacitating explosions, cyber strikes and UMV attacks.
Though not confirmed by Tel Aviv, these are believed to have been carried out by Israel after it openly pledged never to allow Iran – which has threatened to blow Israel off the face of the world – to possess nuclear weapons.
“We have a duty to be brave and responsible for the fate of our children and grandchildren. We have used force against our enemies in the past, and we are convinced that in extreme situations, there is a need to act using military means,” said Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Alon Schuster recently.
Actions have included the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, the explosion at Natanz in 2020 – said to have been caused by the provision of faulty materials following Mossad’s infiltration of the supply chain- and the cyber strike in 2010 using the Stuxnet virus, which reportedly infected more than 200,000 commuters and destroyed a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.
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And drones have also been used, most recently in June last year on an Iran Centrifuge Technology Company facility in Karaj, northwest of Tehran.
A JCPoA nuclear deal with Iran, struck by US President Barack Obama, the UK. France, Germany, Russia and China in 2015, has teetered on the verge of collapse since 2018 when Donald Trump withdrew, citing Iranian abuses and criticisms that it failed to curb Iranian regional hostility.
Attempts to revive it have so far stalled, with Iran making increasingly difficult demands.
In the meantime, Tehran has continued its programme, with some experts estimating it is only weeks away from the point when it will have uranium enriched up to 90 per cent, a position described as the” break-out moment” in the 2015 nuclear deal.
Earlier this month Boris Johnson acknowledged that, while the UK and its European partners Germany and France want to see negotiations in Vienna lead to full restoration of the JCPoA…”time is running out to reach an agreement.”
The drone that may be used.
Should the effort fail, Dr Ghiassee said, Iran should expect an increase in sabotage and cyber and drone attacks.
But he warned that Iran would fight back, potentially using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to launch strikes against Israel’s nuclear sites and other critical infrastructure, while mounting similar attacks against Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Even a successful conclusion “may not prevent sporadic sabotage attacks, as Israel has reiterated that it will try to sabotage, delay or destroy Iran’s nuclear program,” he added.
Speaking to the Sunday Express, former Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi said one way in which the West could rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be to properly act on human rights abuses within the country.
This includes the killing of 1,500 protesters in 2019 as protests against the regime spread across 200 cities, overseen by Ebrahim Raisi, who headed the judiciary.
“Raisi’s ascension to the presidency is perhaps the clearest indicator to date of the regime’s expectation of impunity where human rights are concerned,” said Terzi.
“As Western policymakers should recognise and exploit their opportunities to confront that impunity.
“Expanding pressure on the regime over its human rights abuses would benefit Western nations’ security interests by forcing the regime to focus on domestic affairs and to thus scale back its foreign provocations including but by no means limited to the ongoing expansion of the Iranian nuclear program. “