SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH — The showdown over Iran’s nuclear program is likely to accelerate in 2013 as sanctions tighten, Israel threatens military strikes, and the centrifuges keep spinning. While most attention will be focused on the two most oft-discussed sites of uranium enrichment — Natanz and Fordow — a third site on the gulf could prove to be this year’s most dangerous nuclear wild card.Tucked between two sleepy coastal fishing villages, the Bushehr nuclear power plant has long been seen as the “acceptable” face of Iran’s nuclear program. Built by Russian engineers and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, it is already producing electricity, and most nuclear experts agree that it does not merit the same level of concern over weaponization as Iran’s other nuclear sites.
Bushehr, however, could turn out to be the most dangerous piece of Iran’s nuclear puzzle for another reason: haphazard planning and ongoing technical problems mean it could be the next Chernobyl, igniting a humanitarian disaster and explosive economic damage across the oil-rich region.
Technical problems in the past 12 months have raised serious concerns about Iran’s capacity to competently operate the facility. The plant was shut down in October to limit potential damage following the discovery of stray bolts found beneath its fuel cells, the Reuters news agency reported, citing a Russian industry source. Western officials expressed concern about the plant after an I.A.E.A report in November stated that Iran had informed the agency about unexpected fuel transfers. Last week, the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, called upon Tehran to work more closely with the I.A.E.A. “to ensure the safety of the region’s state and its people.”
Meanwhile, Russian scientists have delayed the transfer of operations to their Iranian counterparts. That is now expected to occur in March.
Also troubling is the fact that Bushehr sits on an active fault line, raising the risks of a Fukushima-type catastrophe. Unless action is taken, the likelihood of an accident is far too high for the international community to ignore.
A Chernobyl-type nuclear meltdown in Bushehr would not only inflict severe damage in southern Iran, but also in the six oil and gas-rich Gulf Cooperation Council countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, the capitals of those states are closer to Bushehr than Tehran. Nuclear radiation in the air and water would disrupt the Strait of Hormuz shipping, the world’s most important oil choke point. Oil prices would skyrocket. The world economy would face a hurricane.
With prevailing winds blowing from east to west in the gulf, and coastal currents that circle counterclockwise, radiation fallout would contaminate oil fields and desalination plants that provide fresh water for local inhabitants. This would be an unmitigated disaster for the gulf states that rely on desalination plants for water, and would also threaten the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, stationed in Bahrain.
We cannot ignore this simmering problem. While all eyes are fixated on Iran’s other key nuclear sites — Fordow and Natanz — Bushehr requires more attention. The I.A.E.A. should promptly initiate a comprehensive assessment of the safety vulnerabilities at the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Both the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the Fukushima accident in 2011 reinforce the reality that the unexpected can occur at nuclear power plants. These events also reinforce the importance of having an integrated emergency response capability in place at local, national and regional levels.
The history of Bushehr is troubling. Begun in 1975 with German engineers, halted after the 1979 revolution, and restarted with the assistance of the Russian Atomic Energy Agency, known as Rosatom, it has been plagued with delays and technical problems from the beginning.
In August of 2010, after several years of delay, the plant became officially operational when fuel rods were transported to the reactor. After no more than six months of operation, the reactor had to be shut down due to problems with the cooling system, which were blamed on German-made components. According to Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, the problems were design anomalies. He stated that 24 percent of the parts and equipment used at the Bushehr plant are German, 36 percent Iranian and 40 percent Russian.
This is not how you make a safe nuclear power plant.
Moreover, there are serious questions about the Iranian regime’s capability to respond to a major nuclear disaster. Iran simply lacks the civil preparedness capabilities to respond to a tragedy on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima.
Iran is the only country operating a nuclear power plant that hasn’t signed the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety. The international community should push Iran to sign the treaty with the same vigor that it pushes Iran to disclose information about its suspected weapons sites. Even countries like Israel, India and Pakistan — none of which have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — have signed the Convention on Nuclear Safety.
Treaties are important, of course, but they are not enough. Iran’s neighbors should work with the United States and other major powers on rapid response efforts to mitigate a potential disaster. The United Nations should form a Bushehr committee to study problems at the plant and offer technical assistance to minimize the risk of an accident. Moreover, it should design its own emergency response strategy to deal with a possible nuclear accident at Bushehr.
The I.A.E.A. should focus on the safety of the Bushehr plant with the same eye for detail that it uses to detect any weaponization program. Hundreds of thousands of lives depend on it, as do world oil markets, the global economy, and the world’s collective security.
Khosrow B. Semnani is the author of “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble: The Human Cost of Military Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities.” Gary M. Sandquist is professor emeritus of mechanical and nuclear engineering at the University of Utah.