By Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation, IISS-Middle East
Gulf leaders have long been concerned that a serious accident at the Iranian nuclear power plant at Bushehr could expose their citizens to radiation. Bushehr’s location in an area of high seismic activity adds to public anxiety over the reactor’s safety. And on Tuesday, nerves were rattled when a magnitude 6.3 earthquake centred less than 100 kilometres from Bushehr killed at least 37 people, injured hundreds and destroyed homes. The quake was felt across the Gulf in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain.
Officials tried to reassure observers. ‘The earthquake in no way affected the normal situation at the reactor,’ the Russian company that built the Bushehr reactor, Atomstroyexport, told news agency RIA Novosti. ‘Personnel continue to work in the normal regime and radiation levels are fully within the norm.’ Mahmoud Jafari, a project manager at the plant, insisted to Iranian state media that the quake ‘didn’t create any complications’.
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Let’s not exaggerate. Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant is not another Chernobyl in the making. Unlike the ill-fated Ukrainian facility, Bushehr’s fuel rods are moderated and cooled by water, not flammable graphite. Bushehr also benefits from modern design improvements, including automatic control and containment systems.
Nor is Bushehr likely ever to suffer the fate of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. The shallow Gulf waters bordering Bushehr cannot produce the kind of massive tsunamis that inundated Fukushima’s electricity and backup cooling system.
It should also be clear by now that Bushehr is not a proliferation threat. The reactor is used for electricity production and the spent fuel will be returned to Russia so the plutonium will not be available for reprocessing for weapons, if Iran were to obtain that technology. In any case, no country has ever used spent fuel from power plants for weapons purposes.
But let’s not sweep aside the environmental and safety dangers either, as Iranian officials are wont to do. Bushehr is located on an earthquake fault. The dust and heat of the local climate contributed to construction delays because of the difficulty of keeping equipment clean and cool. The grafting of a Russian-designed reactor onto the remains of an incomplete German structure and Iran’s contractual requirement for Russia to employ 35-year-old, leftover German pumps and other equipment made for other glitches.