Iraq established its nuclear program in the late 1960s when it acquired its first nuclear facilites. Later, in the 1970s, Iraq was unsuccessful in negotiations with France to purchase a plutonium production reactor similar to the one used in France's nuclear weapons program. In addition to the reactor, Iraq also wanted to purchase the reporcessing plant needed to recover the plutonium produced in the reactor. Even through these requests were denied, France agreed to build a research reactor along with associated laboratories. Iraq built the Osiraq 40 megawatt light-water nuclear reactor at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center near Baghdad with French assistance. Approximately 27.5 pounds of 93% U-235 was supplied to Iraq by France for use in the Osiraq research reactor.
The reactor was a type of French reactor named after Osiris, the Egyptian God of the dead. The French renamed the one being built in Iraq, "Osiraq" to blend the name Osiris with that of the recipient state, Iraq. French orthography then made it "Osirak." Iraq called the reactor "Tammuz," after the month in the Arabic calendar when the Ba'th party came to power in a 1968 coup.
Iraq began to expand its nuclear sector in the 1970's, but made little progress in the early 1980's, when most of its energy and attention were focused on the war against Iran. In September 1980, at the onset of the Iran-Iraq War, the Israeli Chief of Army Intelligence urged the Iranians to bomb Osiraq. On 30 September 1980 a a pair of Iranian Phantom jets, part of a larger group of aircraft attacking a conventional electric power plant near Baghdad, also bombed the Osiraq reactor. Minor damage to the reactor was reported. No further Iranian air attacks against Iraqi nuclear facilities were identified during the rest of the seven-year war.
When Israeli intelligence confirmed Iraq's intention of producing weapons at Osiraq, the Israeli government decided to attack. According to some estimates, Iraq in 1981 was still as much as five to ten years away from the ability to build a nuclear weapon. Others estimated at that time that Iraq might get its first such weapon within a year or two. Prime Minister Menachem Begin felt military action was the only remedy. Begin feared that his party would lose the next election, and he feared that the opposition party would not preempt prior to the production of the first Iraqi nuclear bomb.
The raid would have to occur before its first fuel was to be loaded, before the reactor went "hot" so as not to endanger the surrounding community. The target was distant: 1,100 km from Israel. Preparations included building target mock-ups and flying full scale dress-rehearsal missions. The aircrews were selected from the cream of the IAFs fighter corps. The IDF Chief-of-Staff, Lt. Gen. Rafael (Raful) Eitan, briefed the pilots personally. Displaying unusual emotion, he told them: "The alternative is our destruction".
At 15:55 on 07 June 1981, the first F-15 and F-16's roared off the runway from Etzion Air Force Base in the south. Israeli air force planes flew over Jordanian, Saudi, and Iraqi airspace After a tense but uneventful low-level navigation route, the fighters reached their target. They popped up at 17:35 and quickly identified the dome gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight. Iraqi defenses were caught by surprise and opened fire too late. In one minute and twenty seconds, the reactor lay in ruins.
Baghdad reiterated a previous statement that the French atomic reactor was designed for research and for the eventual production of electricity. In a statement issued after the raid, the Israeli government stated that it had discovered from "sources of unquestioned reliability" that Iraq was producing nuclear bombs at the Osiraq plant, and, for this reason, Israel had initiated a preemptive strike.The attack raised a number of questions of interpretation regarding international legal concepts. Those who approved of the raid argued that the Israelis had engaged in an act of legitimate self-defense justifiable under international law and under Article 51 of the charter of the United Nations (UN). Critics contended that the Israeli claims about Iraq's future capabilities were hasty and ill-considered and asserted that the idea of anticipatory self-defense was rejected by the community of states. In the midst of this controversy, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came under fire from individuals and from governments who complained that the Vienna-based UN agency had failed to alert the world to developments at Osiraq. IAEA officials denied these charges and reaffirmed their position on the Iraqi reactor, that is, that no weapons had been manufactured at Osiraq and that Iraqi officials had regularly cooperated with agency inspectors. They also pointed out that Iraq was a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (informally called the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT) and that Baghdad had complied with all IAEA guidelines. The Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona, it was pointed out, was not under IAEA safeguards, because Israel had not signed the NPT and had refused to open its facilities to UN inspections.
With the loss of this reactor, Baghdad apparently refocused its nuclear weapons effort on producing highly enriched uranium. Its interest in acquiring plutonium as fissile material for weapons continued, but at a lower priority.
After the raid, Baghdad announced that it planned to rebuild the destroyed facility. Although France agreed in principle to provide technical assistance, no definitive timetable was announced. Ultimately, France decided to forego commercially lucrative opportunities to repair the damaged Osirak reactor.
Project 182, relating to the construction of a research reactor, foresaw the construction of an indigenous research reactor to replace the capability that would have been provided by the Osirak (Tamuz-1) research reactor. This project originated in 1984/85 after the breakdown in Iraq's negotiations with France for the rebuilding of the Osirak reactor. The Project 182 reactor was intended to be a natural uranium - heavy water type, similar to the Canadian NRX reactor. When the project had become more defined, in 1987 and 1988, studies concentrated on the design of the reactor core. As this work progressed it was recognised that considerable IAEC and foreign resources would be needed to bring the project to fruition. In mid-1988, while still in the study phase, the project was allowed to lapse due to lack of available resources - a consequence of the higher priority given to the needs of the EMIS enrichment program.
After invading Kuwait, Iraq attempted to accelerate its program to develop a nuclear weapon by using radioactive fuel from the Osiraq reactor. It made a crash effort in September, 1990 to recover enriched fuel from this supposedly safe-guarded reactor, with the goal of produced a nuclear weapon by April, 1991. The program was only halted after Coalition air raid destroyed key facilities on 17 January 1991.
On the third day of the Desert Storm air campaign, a large conventional daylight strike by 56 F-16s with unguided bombs attacked the nuclear complex, which was one of the three most heavily defended areas in Iraq. The results were assessed as very poor. According to DIA, the nuclear research facility was not fully destroyed following the F-117 strikes on day 6 of the campaign. An additional 48 F-117s were tasked seven more times against the target over the next 32 days, dropping 66 more bombs. Moreover, on day 19 of the campaign, 17 F-111Fs were tasked to strike the site. On 26 February 1991, day 42 of the campaign, DIA concluded that the ability to conduct nuclear research or processing at the site was severely degraded.