Another Cause for Alarm in Iran's Nuclear Program: Earthquakes

The country's nuclear power plant is built near tectonic plates, and reports show it may not be safe in the event of a major seismic event.
Iranian nuclear facility banner 92304823908.png
Technicians of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation supervise activities at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan on August 8, 2005. (Reuters)

On April 16, a massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit southeast Iran, sending tremors across the region and causing casualties that are expected to reach into the hundreds. According to an Iranian official , it was the biggest earthquake to hit the country in 40 years. This devastation comes only one week after another earthquake hit the town of Kaki, also in southern Iran, killing at least 37 people and injuring more than 850 others. Shockwaves from both earthquakes were felt as far away as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and western Saudi Arabia. They are only the two most recent in a series of earthquakes that regularly haunt this seismically unstable country.

Most ominously, the epicenter of the April 9 earthquake's first tremor, which measured a 6.3 on the Richter scale, was centered only 62 miles away from Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant.

"The seismic danger to Iran and its implications for the reactor in Bushehr could be disastrous...similar to the disaster in Fukushima, Japan."

These incidents have raised global concerns that a subsequent earthquake could strike even closer to the plant, causing a nuclear disaster similar to the 2011 incident at Fukushima. Despite international outrage, however, the Iranian government remains unconcerned about the risk. Only hours after the April 9 earthquake, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, reiterated Iran's intention to build two more reactors at Bushehr, along with 16 additional reactors in other parts of the country. This decision even defies a report that Iranian nuclear scientists secretly compiled in 2011 in response to Fukushima, which concluded that the potential consequences of an earthquake near the power plant might be catastrophic. "The seismic danger to Iran and its implications for the reactor in Bushehr could be disastrous...similar to the disaster in Fukushima, Japan," the report stated.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, has taken the threat more seriously. In response to the first earthquake, GCC states met on Sunday to look into ways to address potential nuclear leaks stemming from the Bushehr plant, since a disaster there would have grave implications for them, too. Toxic nuclear material can be carried by wind and water for hundreds of miles, bringing irreversible damage far beyond the boundaries of the initial disaster. And on top of the air pollution and immediate human toll, a nuclear incident at the Bushehr plant would contaminate the Gulf waters that are a main source of drinking water for nearby countries. Finally, many major Gulf cities are far closer to Bushehr than the Iranian seat of government in Tehran; Kuwait City, for example, is a mere 155 miles from the nuclear power plant while Tehran is a more comfortable 807 miles away.

"The earthquake that the Iranian city of Bushehr was subject to has raised a great deal of concern among GCC countries and the international community of a possible damage to the Bushehr nuclear reactor that could [cause] a radioactive leak," said GCC Secretary-General Abdullatiff al-Zayani said at the meeting. The Russian-built Bushehr plant does not belong to the UN's Convention on Nuclear Safety, which was formed after the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, largely because it would require greater oversight by the UN's watchdog agency. Iran is the only country operating a nuclear power plant that does not belong to the convention. Additionally, Iran is a nonparty to the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, which means that it could reject responsibility for any international damage caused by an incident at its nuclear facility--costs that could reach well into the billions of dollars.

"Iranian officials have tried to calm fears that the earthquake could affect the nuclear reactor. However, their words were far from reassuring," wrote Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, the GCC assistant secretary general, in an op-ed for the Arab News. "What has been equally disturbing is the cavalier attitude of Iranian officials following the earthquake, dismissing concerns without providing tangible evidence to the contrary ... Nor are there convincing indications that Iran has contingency plans in case of nuclear accidents at this facility."

Presented by

Jillian Keenan

Jillian Keenan is a freelance writer in New York City. 

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

Just In