Bushehr quake revives nuclear safety fears

Bushehr nuclear reactor Photo Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran

Bushehr nuclear reactor. Photo: Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran

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’.

These reactions are similar to those that followed a magnitude 4.8 earthquake in the city of Khormoj in the southwestern province of Bushehr in February 2012 (when no radiation leaked from the nuclear plant). But whether coming from the Atomstroyexport or the Iranian government, such guarantees are unlikely to calm fears, because of Tehran’s history of issuing misleading statements about its nuclear programmes and activities.

In October 2012, for example, Iran assured its public that nothing unexpected had occurred at the Bushehr plant when nuclear fuel had to be removed from the reactor, insisting that the action was part of routine maintenance at the plant. Only later did the government correct itself and admit that the plant had to be shut down to limit damage after stray bolts were found beneath the fuel cells.

One month later, the head of Iran’s emergency services confessed that a leak had occurred at the Uranium Conversion Facility at Isfahan – only to have his published comments to the Mehr news agency censored shortly after his interview.

The nuclear reactor complex at Bushehr was constructed by experienced and capable Russian engineers. The reactor is designed to withstand earthquakes more than 100 times larger than Tuesday’s. The reactor’s fuel rods are moderated by water, not by the flammable graphite used in the ill-fated Chernobyl reactor. Enhanced safety systems and containment capacity have been incorporated into the plant’s design and construction. Iranian engineers have undergone extensive training and are well qualified to operate Bushehr safely and efficiently.

Nonetheless, accidents happen, even at seemingly well-run plants. The Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi disasters of 1986 and 2011, respectively, are tragic reminders of the risks posed by nuclear power plants. So too is the troubling history of the Bushehr plant, whose construction has been plagued by delays, and technical and equipment problems.

Despite past problems, the Bushehr plant is unlikely to experience a catastrophic failure on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima. However, there remains the risk of an accident leading to the release of radioactive materials.

Residents in and around Bushehr are at greatest risk of exposure to radiation and nuclear contamination if such an incident were to unfold. Iran’s Arab neighbours are also threatened because the prevailing winds and currents are likely to carry radioactive elements to the western shores of the Gulf and beyond. Radioactive fallout would threaten not only the capitals of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which are closer to Bushehr than is Tehran, but also the oil and gas fields in the region and the Strait of Hormuz, through which carbon-based energy sources travel daily.

Iran is the only country with an active nuclear power plant that hasn’t signed and ratified the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety. The United States, Europe, Asia and the GCC must compel Iran to sign the treaty, submit its safety provisions and plans to rigorous peer review, adhere to international best practices, and set aside the financial and human resources needed to respond to a nuclear accident. As Mark Fitzpatrick has argued, Iran must also establish a domestic regulatory authority that acts independently of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran to ensure greater oversight of the Bushehr reactor and its operations.

Iran, the Gulf and the world escaped a possible nuclear disaster this time, but will the next earthquake be as benign? Will there be an operational mistake? The international community must act now, and Iran must accept its responsibility to operate Bushehr as safely as possible.

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