Lee Jae-Won / Reuters

North Korea's Other Nuclear Threat

Why We Have More to Fear Than Just Bombs

As the world grapples with the nuclear threat emanating from North Korea, it is not only bombs that should concern us. It is also the dozens of nuclear power plants in Japan and South Korea that are vulnerable to attack should war break out in the region. Commercial nuclear reactors were never designed to survive volleys of missiles that could breach reactor containment buildings, sever coolant lines, destroy the reactor core and spent fuel pools—all of which could cause a nuclear meltdown. Moreover, many of the reactors in Japan and South Korea were built in clusters, which means their destruction could lead to levels of contamination greater than in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Historically, nations at war have tended to attack nonoperational reactors rather than live ones because of radiation concerns. When Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak and Syria’s Al Kibar plants in 1981 and 2007, respectively, it was before the suspected weapons reactors had commenced operations. During the 1980s Iran–Iraq war, Iraq struck two Iranian nuclear power reactors that were still under construction. But this cautionary approach changed when the United States hit a small, live research reactor complex outside Baghdad at the start of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, even though the reactor’s core remained untouched. Then there were Saddam Hussein’s 1991 Scud attack and Hamas’ 2014 small rocket strikes on Israel’s Dimona reactor—but both failed. 

In other instances, threats were present but never realized. During the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, Slovenia shut down its nuclear power plant in Krsko out of fears that Serbia’s air force would bomb it. Belgrade, too, felt that its large nuclear research reactor was vulnerable and sought international assurances that Washington would not hit the installation. Fortunately, no attacks took place in either country. In South Asia, where war and the threat of war has troubled the region for decades, both India and Pakistan have contemplated attacks on each other’s reactors, but reached an agreement in 1988 to refrain

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