08/03/2011 - 20:12

Nuclear safety in Iran, post-Fukushima

Nima Gerami

Nima Gerami

Gerami is a research analyst at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are those of the...

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Although the Fukushima disaster has stalled the ambitions of some developing countries to deploy new power reactors, the Japanese crisis has not seriously affected the expansion of Iran's nuclear energy program. Among the 45 countries that are actively considering plans to build their first power reactors, Iran is farthest along in the process and claims it will connect its Bushehr nuclear power plant to the national grid and begin producing electricity in August.

Leaders from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have consistently expressed fears that a serious nuclear accident at the Bushehr plant, located at the Persian Gulf port city of Bushehr, would spread radiation throughout the region. Indeed, Bushehr is closer to six Arab capitals (Kuwait City, Riyadh, Manama, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Muscat) than it is to Tehran. And Iran's repeated assurances about the safety of this plant have fallen on deaf ears because of widely reported concerns over the project's 37-year-long construction history and the high level of seismic activity in Iran.

Before the Fukushima disaster, Iranian officials emphatically stated that Iran was following in the footsteps of Japan by developing the full nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes without pursuing a weapons program. But Iran shares other similarities with Japan: The Iranian plateau is one of the most seismically active areas in the world and has experienced a number of destructive earthquakes in the past century. Iran's nuclear power plants therefore need to be designed and built according to requirements for high seismicity. After the Fukushima disaster began to unfold, the Japanese model became less useful to Iranian officials, who quickly rejected concerns over the safety of the Bushehr plant. As Iran's representative to the SESAME (Synchrotron Radiation Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) project and nuclear physicist Seyed Mahmoud Reza Aqa-Miri told Fars News Agency, "Iranian experts can easily tackle this [Fukushima] disaster and solve Japan's problem. This shows that maybe Iran's practical capabilities are higher than Japan's."

In an interview with the Iranian state-run newspaper Kayhan, Akbar Etemad, the first head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, said the Bushehr plant was designed to withstand an earthquake with a 7.0 magnitude and built with a reinforced-concrete containment structure to prevent radioactive release in case of an accident. An earthquake of high magnitude, however, could crack the plant's containment dome or disrupt its electrical supply and keep the back-up cooling system from working, as occurred at Fukushima. In February 2011, the Bushehr plant was shut down after a broken pump caused contamination of cooling water; the malfunction was blamed on aging equipment supplied by Germany in the 1970s, before Russia undertook the completion contract for the plant in 1995.

In public, Iranian and Russian officials have vouched for the safety of the Bushehr nuclear plant, but the internal view appears to be different. A May 2011 report leaked by Iranian scientists cautioned that seismic danger to Iran could lead to a disaster similar to the meltdown at Fukushima. Also according to media reports, shortly after the Fukushima disaster, Iranian leadership conducted a review of earthquakes in Iran, which found "incontrovertible risks" of establishing nuclear sites in 20 of Iran's 31 provinces. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, however, reportedly disregarded the review's findings.

Despite Iranian insistence that the Bushehr plant enjoys the "highest up-to-date standards," the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) emphasizes that Iran does not, in fact, follow some important safety protocols. Iran is the only country in the world with significant nuclear activities not to sign the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), a crucial system of peer review and mutual oversight. (Israel, India, and Pakistan, all outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, have signed the CNS. India and Pakistan have both ratified.) In 2010, the IAEA's Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) mission to the Bushehr plant recommended that Iran develop "a comprehensive system of national nuclear safety regulations," increase the number and expertise of technical staff, and sign the CNS.

On June 21 AEOI head Fereydoun Abbasi indicated that Iran has begun the process for ratifying the CNS but denounced the IAEA for relying on "unlawful" UN Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran's nuclear program, which make it difficult for Iranian experts to obtain visas from countries hosting IAEA nuclear safety meetings. Nevertheless, Iran has ignored other opportunities for consultation on the safety of the Bushehr plant, including an IAEA offer, since 2002, to send a pre-Operational Safety and Review Team (OSART) mission to evaluate the Bushehr plant. These missions are conducted upon request but routinely carried out for IAEA member states -- and are particularly recommended for nuclear newcomers -- before nuclear power plants begin operation.

Although Bushehr is unlikely to be struck by a tsunami of the size that devastated Fukushima, the world relies on Iran to effectively regulate the Bushehr nuclear plant once it assumes responsibility for the reactor's operation. If Iran wants to minimize the risks of another nuclear disaster, it should immediately sign and ratify the Convention on Nuclear Safety, establish an independent nuclear regulatory authority, and implement all IAEA recommendations to assure the safety of the public and the long-term reliability of what will become the first commercial power reactor in the Middle East.