By no means do I wish to pick on Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who was only repeating a common misconception in an NPR segment this evening when she said:
On June 7, 1981, Israel launched the first confirmed military strike ever against a nuclear site.
Actually, it wasn’t even the first military strike against that particular facility.
As best as I can tell, attacks on nuclear facilities have come in four or five waves.
The first wave, in the 1940s, consisted of a series of British and Norwegian commando and air raids against the world’s first commercial-scale heavy-water plant, in German-occupied Norway. Wikipedia has a rundown. The subject came up again just this past June (see: Operation Gunnerside, 29 June 2009).
The second wave, in the 1980s, consisted of at least eight air raids against partially complete reactors, involving three countries in the Middle East. Israel’s strike on the Tammuz 1 / Osirak reactor was the second event in this wave.
From Leonard Spector’s Going Nuclear (1987), p. 129:
At least five such attacks are known to have taken place: an unsuccessful bombing raid by Iranian aircraft against Iraq’s large Osiraq research reactor outside Baghdad on September 30, 1980; Israel’s June 7, 1981, air strike against Osiraq, which destroyed the unit; and three Iraqi attacks against the two partially complete Iranian nuclear power plants at Bushehr, on March 24, 1984, and February 12 and March 4, 1985.
The third wave consisted of Coalition air strikes in January and February 1991 against Iraq’s nuclear facilities at al-Sharqat, al-Tarmiya, and al-Tuwaitha (where Tammuz 1 had stood). A building at al-Atheer also caught a bomb.
By some accounts, there was another strike in the third wave,
an as many as five attempted ballistic missile attack[s] by Iraq against Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona in February 1991. But I’ve seen nothing to support the idea that Iraq’s missiles were accurate enough to make a meaningful try. Unlike the other missiles launched by Iraq during the same conflict, this missile or missiles did not even have an explosive warhead[s], and appears to have been no more than a symbolic “stone” or “stones” thrown at Israel. But it is also possible that Saddam Hussein did not know about the inaccuracy problems, and did order a Dimona strike.
The fourth wave consists, so far, of Israel’s September 6, 2007 air raid against the so-called al-Kibar facility in Syria, to all appearances a complete gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor that had yet to be activated.
The four waves can also be broken down into four contexts: WWII, the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not entirely coincidentally, perhaps, every country involved as either an attacker or defender—let’s leave Norway out of the picture—has pursued nuclear weapons at one time or another. (Here, I’m going with the 2007 NIE.) But so far, at least, no country that has had its facilities bombed has succeeded.
Also of note: Iraq was involved, either as attacker or defender, in every strike of the second and third waves.
Have I missed anything? Probably I should say something about the three Taliban attacks on Pakistani military facilities in 2007 and 2008, described here. It’s unclear whether these were specifically intended as attacks on nuclear targets. Perhaps so: on July 2, 2009, the Taliban blew up a bus in Rawalpindi full of employees of Khan Research Labs. Let’s tentatively call it a fifth wave, but of a basically different character.
If you can think of anything else, sing out.