Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has ordered the formation of a committee tasked to build a nuclear research reactor, the Iraqi Radioactive Sources Regulatory Authority (IRSRA) said on 24 September.
The head of the IRSRA, Hussein Latif, said that Iraq is “looking forward to restoring its position in nuclear science, which it occupied in the 1970s and 1980s”.
The research reactor will be used to help produce medical isotopes and pharmaceuticals, and used in agricultural and industrial applications, Latif said. Construction would take approximately five years and would be a boon for Iraqi employment, providing training and work opportunities and help the oil-rich country move away from its dependency on fossil fuels for energy, he added.
Before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq possessed a vast nuclear infrastructure and expertise, 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 is known to have sponsored nuclear weapons development from the 1970s until 1991 Gulf War, after which Iraq's programme was subject to stringent international oversight and weapons development ceased.
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, but is now known to have launched a nuclear weapons programme in the early 1970s in violation of its NPT commitments.
Iraq 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. These facilities, with the exception of the Italian-supplied "hot cell" plutonium handling facility, were placed under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
Israel bombed the Osiraq facility in June 1981, destroying the reactor core before it achieved criticality. Statements from scientists involved in the programme said the attack precipitated a shift in Iraq's strategy, from one based on openly acquiring a latent capability to produce and recover plutonium for weapons to one based on covertly developing a uranium enrichment capability at undeclared facilities.
Over the next decade Iraq pursued several enrichment methods. In 1987 Iraq contracted a Yugoslav firm to build a facility in Al-Tarmiya north of Baghdad capable of producing 15kg of weapons-grade uranium per year using electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS) and also decided to build a second EMIS facility at Ash Sharqat, northwest of Baghdad.
Work on the gaseous diffusion method began at Tuwaitha in 1982, but 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. However, gaseous diffusion was abandoned in 1987/88 in favour of gas-centrifuges. Iraq made significant headway in the late 1980s with assistance from centrifuge experts associated with West German firms. Progress was stalled by the prospect of a US military response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and Iraqi scientists were directed in August 1990 instead to recover safeguarded highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the French- and Russian-supplied research reactors.
Following the end of the Gulf War in 1991, UNSC Resolution 687 directed the IAEA to find and dismantle Iraq's nuclear weapons programme, and ensure Iraqi compliance with the NPT through comprehensive verification. Between May 1991 and October 1997 the IAEA completed 30 inspection campaigns, oversaw the destruction and disablement of nuclear facilities, and removed all weapons-usable nuclear material from Iraq. Other nuclear materials were accounted for and placed under IAEA control.
Iraq ceased co-operation with IAEA between 1998 and 2002 but then permitted IAEA inspectors to resume verification in an attempt to prevent a threatened US-led invasion based on allegations that it had weapons of mass destruction. Although Iraq had retained its nuclear expertise, including design information, scientists, IAEA said three months of intrusive inspections had revealed “no evidence or plausible indications of the revival of a nuclear weapon programme in Iraq”.
The invasion, nevertheless, look place. 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.
Recent Iraqi governments have 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.
Citing research interests and a growing demand for electricity, former Iraqi Minister of Science and Technology Raed Fahmi announced in 2009 that Iraq would explore the feasibility of developing a peaceful nuclear programme but economic difficulties and political instability precluded any concrete action on this at that time.