Will Fukushima Force Iran to Reconsider Nuclear Program?

The country's rogue energy program isn't worth the humanitarian danger, the economic cost, or whatever scant power it might provide

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While Japan's unfolding nuclear and humanitarian crisis resurrected longstanding fears in the West about the safety of nuclear power and the potential vulnerabilities of the world's over 400 operational nuclear power plants, among Iranians it seems to have inaugurated a long overdue debate.

Though the Iranian government's nuclear program, dubiously marked by poor safety practices and earthquake-prone topography, creates the potential risk for a natural-cum-radioactive disaster like that at Fukushima, Japan, up until now there has been little of the way of a public debate in Iran. A combination of misguided nationalism and government misinformation has compelled many non-official Iranian elites -- including staunch regime critics -- to support the Islamic Republic's self-professed "inalienable" nuclear pursuits.

Since Japan's tragedy, however, a growing number of Iranian opinion makers are arguing in open letters, media interviews, and blogs that the government's nuclear program is in fact endangering, not enhancing, the security and economic well being of its citizenry. Will it make any difference?

Iranian officials' boasting about their nuclear security should only accentuate concerns about its safety. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who has compared Iran's nuclear program to "a train with no breaks" and once claimed that a 16-year-old Iranian girl created atomic energy in her kitchen -- recently responded to safety concerns about the country's sole nuclear reactor in Bushehr by declaring that it meets "All safety rules and regulations and the highest standards."

Faulting Japan's outdated technology, Ahmadinejad asserted that a similarly massive earthquake wouldn't create "any serious problem" for Iran.

In reality, the Bushehr reactor today resembles a virtual petri dish of amalgamated, antiquated, and illicit technology -- from 1970s Germany, Russia, and rogue Pakistani scientist A.Q Khan -- ominously situated at the juncture of three tectonic plates.

A project that begin in 1974 by the Shah of Iran has turned into multi-billion dollar money pit -- beset by revolution, war, mismanagement, and sanctions -- that has produced nary a watt of nuclear energy. Heightened international pressure and persistent technical difficulties have prompted warnings even from normally incautious Russian nuclear officials about the possibility of a Chernobyl-style disaster in Bushehr.

In addition to its nuclear malpractice, the Islamic Republic's poor record of anticipatory governance and crisis management has left it far more vulnerable to natural disasters than many of its seismic-prone peers.

The 6.6 Richter earthquake that hit the Iranian city of Bam in 2003 resulted in nearly 60,000 casualties and 100,000 displaced. Eighty-five percent of Bam's buildings and infrastructure were destroyed, much of which has yet to be rebuilt. In contrast, a 6.5 Richter quake that struck San Simeon, California just a few days earlier resulted in only three fatalities and 40 damaged buildings.

While the Islamic Republic has defiantly portrayed its nuclear program as a symbol of Iranian technological advancement on par with landing on the moon, it has neglected to address basic questions about its preparedness for a nuclear emergency, including evacuation drills for Bushehr residents.

The risks of a nuclear meltdown and the release of radioactive material are not limited to Iran. Bushehr is closer in proximity to Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia's oil rich eastern province than it is to Tehran.

Notwithstanding these dangers, Iran, through an unrelenting propaganda campaign that has stifled open discussion, has seemingly managed to persuade much of its scientific elite -- including some in the diaspora -- that its avowed quest for an indigenous nuclear energy program is a noble and necessary endeavor in order to prepare for life after oil.

Presented by

Karim Sadjadpour, Ali Vaez & Fariborz Ghadar

Karim Sadjadpour is Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ali Vaez is an Iranian scientist currently at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Fariborz Ghadar is founding Director of the Center for Global Business Studies at Penn State.

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