- Published on Monday, 28 March 2011 17:32
- Category: The Connection
In this first post of our newest regular column, "The Connection," Aslan Media Contributor, Kianpars, pieces together the bigger picture of Iran's nuclear ambitions. Beyond the politics, there are real safety threats that could be catastrophic if the status quo continues.
Earlier this January, a disconcerting report put out “by a nation closely monitoring Iran's nuclear program,” highlighted how the recent Stuxnet virus, which sent centrifuges at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant into a maelstrom of confusion, could have led to a Chernobyl-like disaster. With U.N. inspectors’ last visit to Iran more than a year ago, and the country clearly unequipped to handle technological emergencies like the Stuxnet virus, it’s becoming increasingly clear that all may not be well at Bushehr.
That’s particularly of interest, in light of this month’s earthquake in Japan. With the Japanese nuclear disaster still unfolding, people around the world are reconsidering the risks associated with nuclear power. The Fukushima plant in Japan appeared to have been sophisticated in design and well-monitored, in contrast with Iran’s nuclear plants, at least one of which has already demonstrated its vulnerabilities. Iran, too, is due for a major disaster, and the preparedness of its plants – and government – to handle such a catastrophe is questionable at best.
For starters, most of Iran is, according to TIME, part of a “major earthquake zone.” The United Nations has labeled Iran “the number one country in the world for earthquakes – whether measured in intensity, frequency or the number of casualties.” In the past 40 years, Iran has had six earthquakes that have measured 6 or higher on the Richter scale. Experts in 2004, stated that Tehran had a 65% likelihood of being hit by a plus 7 Richter scale earthquake before 2014.
Unlike Japan, where regulations require buildings to be prepared to withstand earthquakes, construction in Iran is less prepared for tremors. Even in the capital city of Tehran, the BBC has estimated that “few buildings” would survive a major earthquake in the region. Earthquakes that hit Iran have proven to be more destructive there, at least in part due to the country’s differences in construction and infrastructure, than in other parts of the world where architecture is better prepared for earthquakes.
In 2003, a 6.8 Richter level earthquake killed more than 40,000 people in Iran’s southeastern city of Bam. A similar earthquake hit Paso Robles, California, that same year; in that earthquake, only two people were killed. Last year, even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed concern over Iran’s preparedness for a major earthquake. Ahmadinejad went so far as to suggest the possibility of moving Iran’s capital from Tehran to another area. Ahmadinejad’s comments were rare for a country that is typically quiet about its lack of preparedness for anything: “The worry is that the warnings will alarm people and the government will then have to tell them that there is insufficient money to rebuild their homes and offices.”
Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment center in Qom, near Tehran, holds 3,000 centrifuges and is potentially at risk in the event of a major earthquake. But it is the major nuclear reactor in the south at Bushehr that has captured the attention of the international community over the past week, as concerns about the safety of nuclear power have elevated. Bushehr, which was built in the 1970s, is located at the intersection of three tectonic plates. While it is impossible to predict the region’s next earthquake, President Ahmadinejad recently felt compelled to address the safety of Bushehr should an earthquake hit. However, his comments were ultimately dismissive: “I don't think that we have a serious problem.” He added, “The reactor's safety standards are up-to-date. It should be remembered that the reactor in Japan was built 40 years ago, with yesterdays' standards.”
Ahmadinejad’s statement is apparently intended to assuage fears, but the accuracy of his assertion is questionable. As we have seen at the Fukushima plant in Japan, maintaining the safety of a nuclear plant in the event of a major breakdown is at least partly reliant on a functioning cooling system. It is therefore troubling to hear that Russia was recently forced to remove fuel from Bushehr due to “internal damage in one of the pumps of the coolant system.” Russia’s nuclear agency says that the damage is caused by “Iran’s insistence that the long-delayed project incorporate outdated equipment dating back to the 1970s.”
This led Mark Hibbs at the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace to express concern for Iran’s apparent inability to monitor the safety of its own plants: “The rest of the world is depending on the Russian Federation for policing the nuclear safety of this reactor.” Hibbs added that recent issues with the cooling pump raise “questions about the decisions the Russians made to move forward with an emergency coolant system that’s 30 years old.”
Even more troubling, Iran’s nuclear regulatory agency has been described as short-staffed, and with a decreased capacity due to existing workers that are under-trained and under-compensated. Other experts have speculated that Iran even “cut costs” during its efforts to rebuild the plant. We are learning that in Japan, electric companies may have cut corners in the past to save money having even faked “nuclear safety records.” Iran’s nuclear plants are functioning with much less transparency than those in Japan. Can the world really expect safety at Iran’s Bushehr plant to be better?
Nearby nations are also concerned about Iran’s ability to handle a nuclear disaster if one does occur. Only 170 miles away and squarely downwind, Kuwaiti experts have been increasingly nervous about Iran’s secrecy throughout the plant’s construction. The Director for Kuwaiti Strategic Studies recently said, “What are our concerns – water and air, and these are the essence of life for everybody.” He added, “The Iranians have said so far ‘trust us,’ and it’s quite difficult to trust them and the next thing is to trust Russian certification and it’s very difficult to trust that.”
While the earthquake in Japan has caused inconceivable damage and cost thousands of lives, international experts have hailed the country’s earthquake preparedness as a lifesaver for thousands more. As Iran deals with a tightening economy under substantial international sanctions, how would its buildings and infrastructure fare in a catastrophic disaster of even less magnitude than Japan’s 8.9 earthquake? Could the events in Japan spur stronger investment in emergency preparedness and staff capacity in Iran, particularly in its nuclear facilities? If past foreign and domestic decisions are any indicator, Iran will plow straight ahead, ignoring international and domestic concerns along the way.
[Check out LIFE’s picture gallery Inside Iran’s Nuclear Reactor]
By Kianpars, Aslan Media Columnist