Allied air attacks on Iraqi nuclear facilities may have derailed Iraq's long-term effort to manufacture nuclear weapons but did not necessarily eliminate its ability to fashion at least one crude atomic device, specialists agreed yesterday.

If the air raids destroyed the facility known as Factory 10 near Baghdad where the Iraqis are believed to be developing the gas centrifuge technology needed to enrich uranium, they may have wiped out a decade of clandestine efforts by Iraq to produce its own fuel.

But if the existing small amount of weapons-grade uranium stored at the country's two research reactors was removed before the facilities were bombed, it may be intact and still available for use in an explosive device, experts said.

Iraq has no large commercial reactors generating nuclear power. It has two tiny research reactors, one supplied by France, the other by the Soviet Union, at Tuwaitha, near Baghdad. A third, larger research reactor at that site was destroyed by Israel in a 1981 air raid.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that "I have very high confidence that those nuclear reactors have been thoroughly damaged and will not be effective for quite some number of years." In a separate appearance on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," he said the attacking aircraft have "gone after" Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's "nuclear capability," without specifying the targets.

Only if the targets included Factory 10 can the Iraqi weapons program be said to have suffered a long-term setback, experts said.

Nuclear weapons require either highly enriched uranium or plutonium at their explosive cores. The manufacturing process is different for the two fuels, though both start with natural uranium.

Iraq is not known to have any plutonium. The Osirak research reactor that the Israelis bombed would have been capable of producing it, but that reactor has never been repaired. Iraq does possess about 12.3 kilograms of highly enriched uranium -- enough, experts said, to make at least one crude nuclear explosive device. As recently as November, the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that the fuel was stored at Tuwaitha.

"It seems the real objective in bombing those reactors would be to destroy the fuel so it couldn't be used in a nuclear device," said Leonard Spector, a nuclear proliferation expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Destroying the reactors doesn't necessarily do that. You have to destroy the fuel, and we don't know where it is."

The Iraqis "might even have removed the fuel" after the IAEA's November inspection, said Paul Leventhal, a proliferation expert with the Nuclear Control Institute here. "My question is, what do we know about the location of the fuel if these facilities were hit?"

Of greater concern to nuclear weapons specialists is the status of Iraq's secret but well-known effort to develop its own gas centrifuge factory to enrich uranium to weapons grade.

Iraq has ample stocks of natural uranium in the form known as yellowcake that it acquired from Brazil. But "there is pretty much a consensus that they do not have an operating centrifuge plant" that would be needed to convert the yellowcake into weapons-grade fuel, said Leventhal.

But there is abundant anecdotal evidence that Iraq has been working for years on an international nuclear black market to acquire the technology and the parts that would enable it to create such a plant. The facility known as Factory 10 has been identified as the site of a prototype.

"There is compelling evidence that an enrichment program is underway, but it's enormously complicated, " Spector said. "I was surprised by some of the progress they had made. They had blueprints . . . it's very, very serious."

"The reactors that they have are not considered to be associated with the nuclear weapons program," said Peter Clausen, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "A much more significant gain would have been to destroy any prototype centrifuge plant."

In a centrifuge uranium enrichment plant, uranium mixed with fluorine is heated to a gaseous form and spun through hundreds of linked centrifuges to separate the enriched uranium 238 to be used in weapons from the more stable natural uranium 235.

Until recently, there was no evidence Iraq had access to uranium hexafluoride, as the mixture is called. It is available on the open market from European suppliers, but "whether anyone would sell it to Iraq is highly questionable," said Daniel R. Einbund, vice president of New York Nuclear Corp., a uranium brokerage.

According to Spector, however, an obscure Paris magazine recently published what appeared to be a well-documented article saying Iraq had developed the ability to make uranium hexafluoride at a phosphate processing plant at al-Qaim.

"This is serious enough, and there's enough detail in the story, that I'd like to know more," he said.

The Vienna-based IAEA said yesterday that the attacks on Iraq's reactors probably did not create any radiation exposure hazard, an assessment generally shared by American specialists.

A commercial nuclear power plant generates 800 to 1,000 megawatts of electricity. The rated capacity of one of the Iraqi research reactors was five megawatts, the other less than one megawatt.

Even if these small reactors were operating at the time of the bombing, which the IAEA said was unlikely, and even if the reactors took direct hits, the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere would have been so small that it posed no danger to anyone outside the site of the plants, experts said.

"If you made a direct hit on an operating reactor, that would be hot, it would cause some radiation release, but it would be much smaller than {the 1986 explosion in the Soviet reactor at} Chernobyl because there's much less fuel involved," said Clausen.

IAEA spokesman Hans-Friedrich Meyer told reporters that fuel elements at the two reactors were stored in pools of water, which would have minimized the release of radiation. In addition, he said, "our experts say these reactors are surrounded by an earth wall" for extra safety.

"I think any release of radiation depends on where the fuel is," Leventhal said. "If it's in the {reactor} core and you have a direct hit, you could have contamination on site. But these are such small facilities compared to a commercial plant that it would be limited to the site."