Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have made countless headlines since 2013, when Tehran and six world powers reached an interim agreement on how to move forward. The country’s enrichment capacity, heavy water reactors, and past weaponization activities have all been under close scrutiny by the international community and press. But little attention has been paid to a crucial part of the discussions: nuclear safety.
Nuclear safety is about preventing and mitigating accidents, and making sure that nuclear facilities operate properly and don’t pose a radiation hazard to people or places. It is not a sexy topic. But along with proliferation, it is one of the most pressing issues to consider in the context of any nuclear program. The world seems to only pay attention to nuclear safety when catastrophes occur, like those at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. But for Iran’s neighbors, especially the Arab Gulf states, it’s an important issue. The Middle East’s only operating nuclear power plant, Bushehr, is located in Iran’s south, close to the Persian Gulf. The rest of the eight reactors Tehran has planned will also be built in the area. This means that any safety breach would not only affect Iran’s population, but also have cross-border implications.
The Bushehr nuclear power plant is particularly worrisome. Tehran began to build it before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, at a time when the country was working with a number of foreign suppliers. In 1974 the German Company Siemens (then KraftWerk) started building the first of two planned reactors. The project was halted in 1979, even though one reactor was almost complete. The revolution was followed by the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, during which the Iraqi military bombed Bushehr. When Tehran decided to resume work on the plant in the 1980s, Siemens was no longer willing to play ball, mainly due to US pressure.
With most Western suppliers no longer willing to work with Iran on its nuclear program, in 1994 the Islamic Republic turned to Russia. What was originally a German design was modified to house a 1,000-megawatt electric Russian light water reactor called the Voda Voda Energo. The combination of 1970s German infrastructure with 1990s Russian technology in a seismic zone has led many, including Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors, to worry about safety.
This issue made headlines in 2013, when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Bushehr. While the original German structure was designed to withstand a magnitude 7.5 or 8 earthquake, Russian changes to the plant raise questions regarding its ability to do so. The Russians have said that Bushehr can withstand a magnitude 7 earthquake while being operated, or a magnitude 8 under shutdown, meaning when control rods have been inserted in order to stop the fission. Conflicting reports came out about the earthquake’s impact. Some indicated that the Bushehr reactor had suffered damage, while Tehran said there had been none.
Two years later, Iran and the world powers reached a framework agreement, and they are working towards a comprehensive deal under which Tehran would limit some aspects of its nuclear program for 10 to 15 years in exchange for sanctions relief. Nuclear safety is part of the talks: In their March 2015 joint statement, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini indicated that along with nuclear security (ensuring that fissile material and nuclear facilities are not sabotaged and don’t fall into the wrong hands), safety would constitute an “important area of cooperation.” But details of this cooperation haven’t been released, and negotiators’ public statements have focused on proliferation concerns and economic sanctions.
To be sure, the primary aim of the talks lies in those two areas, but the safety issue can’t be ignored. Though Tehran says its facilities meet the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safety guidelines, there remains much room for improvement.
First, Tehran doesn’t have an independent and impartial domestic regulatory authority that is separate from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which is in charge of developing the country’s nuclear infrastructure and technology. That’s problematic because it indicates a lack of proper oversight.
Second, Tehran remains the only country operating a nuclear power plant that has not signed and ratified the Convention on Nuclear Safety, even though the IAEA urged it to do so before Bushehr became operational.
Third, Iranian officials have said that the IAEA monitors the country’s nuclear power plant safety, but the agency has rejected the claims, noting that it is no more involved in monitoring the safety of facilities in Iran than it is in any other country. Ultimately, the IAEA treats states as responsible for their own nuclear safety. The Bushehr plant does conduct regular seismic checks and operational safety reviews, but Tehran should also request peer reviews from the IAEA’s Integrated Regulatory Review Service. Peer reviews suggest best practices and make recommendations on how to strengthen the effectiveness of the national regulatory infrastructure.
While the world is focused on the number of centrifuges Iran can keep, the timeframe a nuclear deal would cover, the Arak heavy water reactor, and monitoring, nuclear safety has gone virtually unnoticed. A single word in the Zarif-Mogherini joint statement tells us that it is being discussed. But it is an important issue with effects transcending Iran’s borders, and it could be addressed easily, as nuclear safety is not politicized. Everyone agrees that it’s a good idea. Any measures Tehran took would benefit the country’s own population and environment, while also reassuring neighbors. In the negotiations, proliferation has understandably taken precedence. But there’s no sense in waiting until the next Fukushima to make sure Iranian plants can withstand natural disaster.