By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Let’s notexaggerate. 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 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.
Most recently, in October 2012, the fuel had to be unloaded because stray bolts were discovered under the fuel cells. So while the conditions that led to the Chernobyl and Fukushima Level 7 disasters are not present at Bushehr, other unforeseen problems cannot be ruled out.
Iran’s penchant for nuclear secrecy is incompatible with nuclear safety norms. A nuclear-safety culture requires openness, frank acknowledgement of mistakes and sharing of information with international peers. Iran’s nuclear programme is not known for any of these attributes.
In the field of nuclear safety, as in nuclear transparency, Iran is an outlier. Most egregiously, Iran has declined to date to be a party to the 1994 Nuclear Safety Convention, to which 75 other countries adhere. It is the only country with a nuclear power plant to be outside the treaty.
Iran’s representative to the UN wrote recently that the national parliament had begun the process for acceding to the convention. Good. But in light of so many past misstatements by Iran about its nuclear programme, applause might best be withheld until the action is completed. Witness, for example, the many times that Iranian representatives have said they would be ready ‘very soon’ to resume nuclear talks with the six powers. Yet Iran still refuses to agree to a date.
In the latest falsehood, Iran’s deputy negotiator reportedly had the gall to call on the six powers not to delay talks beyond January.
Another problem is the lack of independence of Iran’s nuclear regulatory authority, which lies within the organisational structure of the Iran Atomic Energy Agency. It is thus subordinate to those who have a vested interest in promoting nuclear activities. Japan’s similar lack of an independent nuclear regulator contributed to the oversight errors that allowed for the Fukushima disaster.
The IAEA Nuclear Safety Convention would require Iran to adhere to international best practices and to submit safety provisions to peer review. Obligations to meet international benchmarks cover siting, design and construction of reactors as well as operation, the availability of adequate financial and human resources, the assessment and verification of safety, quality assurance and emergency preparedness. Parties are also encouraged to submit national reports, such as the one submitted by the UAE to a meeting of contracting parties last August.
To be fair, Iran has accepted an IAEA operational safety review at Bushehr, and previous IAEA missions have reviewed safety regulations for the plant. But Iran’s citizens and neighbours deserve the reassurance that would come with adherence to the convention.
Like Arabs on the other side of the Gulf, the Iranians who live near Bushehr can be forgiven for feeling anxious about the reactor. Lack of government transparency adds to unease. Media outlets in Iran are generally prohibited from criticising the nuclear programme. Only on safety and environmental grounds are questions about nuclear policies sometimes allowed expression, but only briefly.
A reported leak at the Uranium Conversion Facility at Isfahan this past November, for example, appears to have been subject to a government whitewash after comments by the head of Iran’s emergency services were removed from the Mehr news agency.
Russia plans to transfer operational management of Bushehr to Iran in March. Shouldn’t this be delayed until after Iran adheres to international norms and joins the Nuclear Safety Convention?
This article originally appeared in The National