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.
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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."

According to a report released this month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace , the Bushehr plant sits at the intersection of three tectonic plates, and Iran's "nuclear materials and stockpiles are some of the least secure in the world." Although the Bushehr plant cost over $11 billion dollars (making it one of the most expensive reactors in the world) and took over four decades to build, it fills only 2 percent of Iran's electricity needs.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, declared that Bushehr meets "all safety rules and regulations and the highest safety standards have been applied to the nuclear power plant."

There have been problems with the plant, however, since well before it was operational. The hybrid German-Russian reactor relies on outdated technology that is easily prone to malfunction; during February 2011 tests, all four of the reactor's emergency cooling pumps -- which dated back to the 1970s -- were damaged. According to its Russian builders, Bushehr is designed to withstand an earthquake of up to 6 on the Richter scale while in operation and up to 6.7 on the Richter scale while in "safe shutdown" mode. Iran regularly experiences earthquakes that exceed a 6 on the Richter scale, and earthquakes that exceed 6.7 are not rare. (In addition to this week's 7.8-magnitude earthquake, in June 1990 Iran was hit with an earthquake that measured a 7.7 on the Richter scale and killed 37,000 people.)

The hybrid German-Russian reactor at Bushehr relies on outdated technology that is prone to malfunction.

Bushehr is not the only nuclear facility located in a region that is prone to earthquakes. After the Fukushima incident, President Obama ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to assess the earthquake risk for every nuclear facility in the United States. According to the NRC, "all U.S. nuclear power plants are built to withstand environmental hazards, including earthquakes." In 2011, the NRC calculated that the typical nuclear reactor in the United States has a 1 in 74,176 risk of an earthquake strong enough to damage reactor's core. The reactor with the highest risk rating is the Indian Point Energy Center, located 24 miles north of New York City. The probability of an earthquake causing damage at Indian Point has been calculated at 1 in 10,000.

Despite the risks, however, experts caution that it is important not to overstate the significance of the April 9 earthquake in Iran. Although any earthquake 62 miles from the Bushehr plant is alarming, it is not comparable to the 9-magnitude quake that hit Fukushima.

"People are inclined to think that Richter magnitude 6, and 7, 8 just go up by a factor of one, [when] actually it's an increase of 10 for each power," said Gary Sandquist, a professor emeritus at University of Utah who specializes in risk assessment and radioactive waste management, in an interview with Radio Free Europe . "So a Richter magnitude 9 is a thousand times greater intensity than a 6. So 6.3 [the scale of the April 9 earthquake] is significant but it's certainly no 9, which is what the Japanese suffered at Fukushima. And that was a once-in-a-thousand-year event, a millennial event."

However, Sandquist and other experts caution that in a closed-off society such as Iran, which has developed a contentious relationship with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, it is never safe to assume scientific or technological security.

"We don't know what the situation is and usually the best way for any regime to respond in this case is to say, 'All is well,'" added Sandquist. "And then later on you find out there were real problems."

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Jillian Keenan

Jillian Keenan is a freelance writer in New York City. 

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