Military and terrorist attacks on nuclear plants

A separate webpage details the nuclear threats resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

See the Nuclear Facilities Attack Database — a global database recording assaults, sabotages and unarmed breaches of nuclear facilities. It doesn’t include incidents such as attacks on Iraq’s research reactor … possibly because those attacks were launched by nation-states not sub-national groups / terrorists.

Nation-states haven’t launched any military attacks on operational nuclear power plants, or accidentally hit any operational nuclear power plants. (UPDATE! See the  webpage on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.) There is however a history of conventional military strikes on ostensibly peaceful nuclear facilities in the Middle East, driven by proliferation fears.

Historical examples of military strikes on nuclear plants include the following:

  • In April 1979, Israeli agents in France planted a bomb that destroyed the Osiraq reactor’s first set of core structures while they were awaiting shipment to Iraq.
  • Israel’s destruction of a research reactor in Iraq in 1981
  • The US destruction of a research reactor in Iraq in 1991
  • Attempted military strikes by Iraq and Iran on each other’s nuclear facilities during the 1980-88 war
  • Iraq’s attempted missile strikes on Israel’s nuclear facilities in 1991
  • Israel’s bombing of a suspected nuclear plant in Syria in 2007.

Most of those attacks were directed at ‘research’ reactors capable of producing plutonium for weapons, while Iraq attacked the partially-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in 1987.

Nuclear plants might also be targeted with the aim of widely dispersing radioactive material or, in the case of power reactors, disrupting electricity supply.

If and when nuclear-powered nations go to war, they will have to choose between shutting down their power reactors, or taking the risk of attacks potentially leading to widespread, large-scale dispersal of radioactive materials. Spent fuel stores, which typically contain enormous quantities of radioactive materials, may be more vulnerable than reactors as they are generally less well protected.

Richard Garwin poses these questions: “What happens with a failed state with a nuclear power system? Can the reactors be maintained safely? Will the world (under the IAEA and U.N. Security Council) move to guard nuclear installations against theft of weapon-usable material or sabotage, in the midst of chaos? Not likely.”

There are examples of IAEA safeguards being suspended in the event of war or domestic political turmoil, including Iraq in 1991, some African states, Yugoslavia, and most recently in Ukraine.

Proliferation and Security

Excerpt from a Nuclear Monitor article.

Tied to proliferation issues are security issues such as potential military strikes and cyber-attacks on nuclear plants, and the murder of nuclear scientists and others involved in Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel has repeatedly threatened to launch military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program.1

In addition to the Stuxnet cyber-attack on Iran’s enrichment program, there has been speculation that Bushehr was also targeted and that Stuxnet may have caused problems leading to the removal of fuel from the reactor in early 2011.2

The Bushehr plant (then under construction) sustained damage from numerous Iraqi bombing raids during the 1980−88 war.3,4

In September 2014, Iran arrested a Ukrainian man suspected of sabotaging the Bushehr plant. The suspect pretended to be an expert from Russia, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri cited authorities as saying. The nature of the alleged sabotage was not disclosed.5

An explosion occurred inside the Arak reactor building in late 2013 according to Israeli sources. According to Israeli website Debkafile, Tehran did its utmost to conceal the blast. Debkafile speculated that the blast resulted from physical sabotage, a viral attack on computers, or the result of inferior steel materials that were unable to withstand intense pressure during testing.6

In March 2014, the deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Asghar Zarean, accused “foreigners” of trying unsuccessfully to sabotage the Arak plant.7

Zarean said: “Several cases of industrial sabotage have been neutralized in the past few months before achieving the intended damage, including sabotage at a part of the IR-40 facility at Arak.”8

Arak is regarded as particularly vulnerable to attacks in its partially-built state, since attacks could damage or destroy the reactor and associated infrastructure without resulting in widespread radioactive contamination. Israel’s former chief of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, who piloted one of the planes that bombed Iraq’s Osirak heavy-water reactor in 1981 before it was due to become operational, said: “Whoever considers attacking an active reactor is willing to invite another Chernobyl, and no one wants to do that.”9

In addition to the strike on Osirak in 1981, Israel destroyed a suspected reactor site in Syria in 2007 and has refused to rule out bombing Arak.10

In August 2012, saboteurs blew up power lines supplying Iran’s underground uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom.11

In August 2014, Iran said it had shot down an Israeli drone that was heading for its uranium enrichment site near the town of Natanz.12

At least five people associated with Iran’s nuclear program have been murdered since 2007, including the deputy head of Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz (killed by a car bomb in 2012), the head of the country’s ballistic missile program, and the head of Iranian cyber warfare (who was shot dead).13-16

In 2012, Iran hanged a man it claimed was a Mossad agent over the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in 2010.17


  1. Associated Press, 25 Nov 2013, ‘Israeli leader Netanyahu condemns Iran nuclear deal as a ‘historic mistake’ and threatens to use military action if needed’,
  2. BBC, 26 Feb 2011, ‘Iran nuclear plans: Bushehr fuel to be unloaded’,
  3. Robert Tait, 25 Jan 2009, ‘Iran Makes First Test-Run of Bushehr Nuclear Reactor,’
  4. AP, 18 Nov 1987, ‘Iran says nuclear plant hit’, The Lewiston Journal,
  5. Vasudevan Sridharan, 7 Sept 2014, ‘Iran Arrests Ukrainian for ‘Sabotaging’ Bushehr Nuclear Plant’,
  6. Julian Kossoff, 4 Nov 2013, ‘Was Iran’s Arak Nuclear Reactor Hit by Saboteurs?’,
  7. Umid Niayesh, 17 March 2014, ‘Iran gives details of sabotage at IR-40 nuclear site’,
  8. Associated Press, 15 March 2014, ‘Iran says sabotage prevented at nuclear facility’,
  9. Julian Kossoff, 4 Nov 2013, ‘Was Iran’s Arak Nuclear Reactor Hit by Saboteurs?’,
  10. Simon Sturdee / AFP, 13 Nov 2013, ‘Iran’s Arak reactor: a second route to a nuclear bomb?’,
  12. Fredrik Dahl, 12 Sept 2014, ‘Iran wants U.N. atomic agency to condemn Israeli drone ‘aggression”,
  13. Patrick Cockburn, 6 Oct 2013, ‘Just who has been killing Iran’s nuclear scientists?’,
  14. 2 March 2014, ‘Obama pushes Israel to stop assassinations of Iran nuclear scientists – report’,
  15. 12 Jan 2012, ‘Iran’s history of nuclear incidents’,
  16. William Tobey, 12 January 2012, ‘Nuclear scientists as assassination targets’,
  17. 16 May 2012, ‘Iran hangs ‘Mossad agent’ for scientist killing’,

The Chernobyl Factor in the Ukraine Crisis

Bennett Ramberg, 14 April 2014

LOS ANGELES – Twenty-eight years after its Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, Ukraine confronts a nuclear specter of a different kind: the possibility that the country’s reactors could become military targets in the event of a Russian invasion. Speaking at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in March, Andrii Deshchytsia, Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, cited the “potential threat to many nuclear facilities” should events deteriorate into open warfare.
Earlier in the month, Ihor Prokopchuk, Ukraine’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, circulated a letter to the organization’s board of governors warning that an invasion could bring a “threat of radiation contamination on the territory of Ukraine and the territory of neighboring states.” In Kyiv, Ukraine’s parliament responded by calling for international monitors to help protect the plants as the cash-strapped government attempts to boost its own efforts.
Are Ukraine’s concerns mere hyperbole – a “malicious slander,” as the Kremlin puts it – or should we take them seriously? For Ukraine’s government, the angst is real. Even Ukrainians born after 1986 understand what a Chernobyl-type disaster brought about by battle could look like.
History offers little guidance as to whether warring countries would avoid damaging nuclear sites. With the exception of the 1990’s Balkan conflict, wars have not been fought against or within countries with nuclear reactors. In the case of the Balkans, Serbian military jets overflew Slovenia’s Krško nuclear power plant in a threatening gesture early in the conflict, while radical Serbian nationalists called for attacks to release the radioactive contents.
Serbia itself later issued a plea to NATO not to bomb its large research reactor in Belgrade. Fortunately, the war ended with both reactors untouched.
While that case provides some assurance that military and political leaders will think twice about attacking nuclear reactors, the sheer scale of Ukraine’s nuclear enterprise calls for far greater global concern. Today, 15 aging plants provide 40% of Ukraine’s electricity. (Ukraine shut several reactors operating adjacent to the damaged Chernobyl reactor years ago.) Concentrated in four locations, Ukraine’s pressurized water reactors differ from the less stable Chernobyl RBMK design, yet still remain capable of releasing radioactive contents should safeguards fail.
Given that Russia, too, suffered serious consequences from the Chernobyl accident, it is to be hoped that the Kremlin would recoil at the idea of bombing the plants intentionally. But warfare is rife with accidents and human error, and such an event involving a nuclear plant could cause a meltdown.
A loss of off-site power, for example, could be an issue of serious concern. Although nuclear plants are copious producers of electricity, they also require electrical power from other sources to operate. Without incoming energy, cooling pumps will cease functioning and the flow of water that carries heat away from the reactor core – required even when the reactor is in shutdown mode – will stop.
To meet that risk, nuclear plants maintain large emergency diesel generators, which can operate for days – until their fuel runs out. The reactor meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station in 2011 demonstrated what happens when primary and emergency operating power are cut.
Such vulnerabilities raise troubling questions in the event of a war. Fighting could disrupt off-site power plants or transmission lines servicing the reactor, and could also prevent diesel fuel from reaching the plant to replenish standby generators. Operators could abandon their posts should violence encroach.
Moreover, combatants could invade nuclear plants and threaten sabotage to release radioactive elements to intimidate their opponents. Others might take refuge there, creating a dangerous standoff. A failure of military command and control or the fog of war could bring plants under bombardment.
Serious radiological contamination could result in each of these scenarios. And, though no one stands to gain from a radioactive release, if war breaks out, we must anticipate the unexpected.
In Ukraine, nuclear emissions could exceed both Chernobyl and Fukushima. Wartime conditions would prevent emergency crews from getting to an affected plant to contain radiological releases should reactor containments fail. And, with government services shut down in the midst of fighting, civilians attempting to escape radioactive contamination would not know what to do or where to go to protect themselves.
Such risks might be one reason for Russian President Vladimir Putin to think twice about ordering a military invasion of Ukraine. But, should war come, combatants must do all they can to keep conflict away from the nuclear sites and the off-site power sources feeding them.
Plant operators should stockpile diesel fuel to keep emergency generators operating. They should perform review and maintenance of generators to ensure that they are set to go. In the event of fighting near reactors, the West should prepare to ferry forces to secure the plants and keep the generators operating; and, in the event of a meltdown, the West should rally both governments to initiate a cease-fire to deal with the disaster. Given the stakes, failure to prepare for the worst is not an option.