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Faulting Japan's outdated technology, Ahmadinejad asserted that a similarly massive earthquake wouldn't create "any serious problem" for Iran.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.
The economics of Iran's nuclear approach, however, suggests that its astronomical costs appear to dwarf its minimal benefits. The country's lost foreign investment in its energy infrastructure -- estimated to be around $60 billion -- is unlikely to ever be redeemed by nuclear energy, as power generated by the Bushehr plant can only satisfy two percent of Iran's projected electricity consumption. By comparison,18 percent of Iran's electricity is wasted through transmission because of technical problems and mismanagement.