National Post: Except for a few concerned neighbours in the Gulf, nobody is really looking at the possible implications of a potential earthquake in Bushehr, where Iran’s oldest and main nuclear plant is located.
By Olivier Guitta
While the international community has been focusing on a potential Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, another much larger issue looms, and should be tackled very urgently. But interestingly, except for a few concerned neighbours in the Gulf, nobody is really looking at the possible implications of a potential earthquake in Bushehr, where Iran’s oldest and main nuclear plant is located.
Bushehr, a city of over a million people in southeast Iran, sits in one of the most active seismic regions in the world, at the intersection of three tectonic plates. Building a nuclear plant in this area should have been a no-no, but construction started in 1975 with the help of Germany. It was stopped in 1979, right before the Revolution that unseated the Shah. It was resumed in 1996 with Russian assistance. The project took over 15 years to complete because of the very difficult technical issues of merging German and Russian technology. After Russia provided necessary nuclear fuel, the plant went operational in July 2013.
The safety issues concerning the plant are numerous: It is built with a 40-year-old design that has shown its limitations; the emergency coolant system is also 30 years old; it is running on two different technologies; according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the staff is not properly trained to face any kind of accident. In February, 2011, a broken water pump caused small metallic pieces to infiltrate the reactor cooling system, forcing the unloading of the fuel rods.
When you couple all this with the fact that Iran is the only nuclear-operating country that has not signed any of the major international safety conventions, one should be very worried about a possible Fukushima-style accident. Indeed, in May, 2011, Iranian scientists themselves concluded this, in a report that was subsequently leaked.
The design of the plant, and the competence of its staff, are not the only issues. It is situated in a zone that has experienced several deadly and very intense earthquakes — including as recently as April of last year. A 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Bushehr; luckily the plant was not online at the time.
The Gulf countries are even more concerned than Iran itself about a potential nuclear accident. By a quirk of geography, Bushehr is closer — much closer — to major population centres in the Arab nations of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar than it is to other large Iranian cities. Additionally, the speed and the direction of the winds, northwesterly, would actually push the potential radioactive leak right towards the aforementioned neighbouring countries and the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s major population centers could be partially sheltered by the Zagros Mountains, a large mountain range about 550 miles long and 150 miles wide, which could act as a shield.
So any accident at Bushehr would have far more repercussions in the Arab world than Iran itself. First, the number of direct victims could be in the thousands, with hundreds of thousands more facing long-term cancer risks. The impacts on international relations and global trade in this economically vital area of the world cannot be predicted, but would clearly be devastating.
The Gulf Co-operation Council has asked repeatedly for international officials to inspect the plant for potential radioactive leaks and has loudly expressed its concerns, especially of late. So far, no success. Maybe that is something that the P5+1 should have demanded to be included in their much-hailed agreement.
Olivier Guitta is the director of research at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.