Could Iran’s Earthquake Prone Nuclear Program Trigger a Chernobyl Event?

Arak Heavy Water Reactor (IR-40). Source: Reuters.

Yesterday, an earthquake struck Iran killing 8 and injuring 59 in the vicinity of the Bushehr nuclear power plant located on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf.  CNN reported:

The U.S. Geological Survey said the 5.6-magnitude quake was centered about 39 miles (63 km) northeast of the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr, where the nuclear plant is located, and 7 miles (14 km) northeast of Borazjan.

[. . .]

A 6.3-magnitude earthquake in May killed 39 people and injured 850 in Bushehr province, but the reactor was not affected

Iran is very prone to frequent devastating earthquakes given the country’s location at the conjunction of the Arabian and Eurasian plates with several major fault zones.  American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin  informed this writer at a Yale residential college forum in 2005, the Bushehr nuclear power facility was built on an earthquake fault.

Earthquake Damage, Borazjan, Iran, Nov. 28, 2013.

Iran has suffered devastating earthquakes in the past.  CNN noted:

In August 2012, two earthquakes in northwestern Iran struck 11 minutes apart — the first a 6.4 magnitude, and the second a 6.3 magnitude, killing at least 306 people.

In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 quake struck the city of Bam in southeast Iran, killing some 31,000 people.

A 1990 quake in the northwestern provinces of Gilan and Zanjan killed as many as 50,000.

Given the focus of the world’s interest in the IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear development program under the recently announced P5+1 agreement  and the news that the Islamic Regime will open up the Arak heavy water reactor (IR-40) for a possible visit by IAEA inspectors on December 8, 2013, perhaps the UN nuclear watchdog agency should raise the matter of why Iran hasn’t signed the 1994 Nuclear Safety Agreement regarding both nuclear reactors.  The Bushehr nuclear power facility has been criticized for faulty construction, yet control of it was transferred in September 2013 to Iran by Russian developers of the nuclear power facility.  A possible quake on the fault line under the Bushehr nuclear power plant, in the opinion of critics Khosrow Semnani and Gary M. Sandquist, might lead to a devastating Chernobyl Event with massive collateral damage downwind to the Gulf Emirates, Iraq and Saudi Arabia on the Southern Littoral of the Persian Gulf.  They wrote about this daunting prospect in a New York Times op-ed in January 2013, “The Next Chernobyl”.

The authors noted:

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 chokepoint. 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.

Further, Messrs. Semnani and Sandquist drew attention to the faulty construction of Bushehr:

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.

But Iran unlike other developers of nuclear weapons programs, as the authors pointed out,  is not prepared for a possible Chernobyl or Fukushima disaster:

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.

The IAEA will be hard pressed to deal with inspections of nuclear weapons programs under the P5+1 interim agreement let alone address safety concerns raised about earthquake threats to the safe operations of reactors at Bushehr and possibly Arak.  American David Kay, former UN chief  weapons inspector, drew attention in an NPR interview  to the  daunting task facing the small contingent of 250 of the Vienna based nuclear watchdog agency  inspection staff overseeing the monitoring of the P5+1 agreement of just the known sites.  Accordingly, Yukio Amano, IAEA director-general Amano has indicated the agency might need more funding for verification work.

The recent earthquakes near the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran raise additional concerns for any agreement to control Iran’s nuclear program. Concerns that the US Senate might consider taking up in pending amendments containing strengthened sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program when it meets following the Thanksgiving recess. Notwithstanding, the Obama White House might raise  with the UN Security Council the matter of Iran’s failure to sign the 1994 Nuclear Safety Agreement. The Middle East and the world don’t need to face the additional risk of a Chernobyl or Fukushima-type event arising from the Iran’s reckless pursuit of nuclear hegemony.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.