Safety Concerns Linger over Bushehr Nuclear Plant

The launch of operations at the Bushehr nuclear power plant (BNPP) will represent a major milestone in Iran’s advancing nuclear programme. On 7 June, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the completion of construction on the BNPP, which after a long series of delays is expected to begin producing electricity in August. The facility is set to become the first commercial power reactor to operate in the Middle East.

In a show of defiance against international opposition to its nuclear programme, Iran displayed new underground missile silos on the first of 10 days of military exercises held from 27 June, and in the same week announced plans to send a monkey into space on board its Kavoshgar rocket. Tehran has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear programme is for peaceful civilian use and is geared towards energy production.

Yet the nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima power plant, caused by an earthquake and tsunami that struck the island on 11 March, has renewed concerns about the safe operation of reactors in Iran, the only country building nuclear power plants that does not already produce nuclear energy. The BNPP’s long history of construction by different vendors and several technical problems, as well as Tehran’s hesitation to join a key nuclear safety convention, also bring the level of safety at the plant into question.

While it is difficult to ascertain the level of safety at the BNPP, any accidents at the plant would have serious implications for an already volatile region.

Post-Fukushima Reactions

Prior to the Fukushima crisis, Iranian officials insisted that Japan’s nuclear programme served as a model for Iran in its drive to develop sensitive fuel cycle capabilities without building nuclear weapons. Yet Iran, like Japan, is also one of the most seismically active countries in the world (several major fault lines cross the country and at least 90% of Iran falls within an active seismic zone). The country is prone to frequent earthquakes, and the southwestern port city of Bushehr, situated 1,330 km from the Iranian capital of Tehran, sits near the juncture of three tectonic plates.

Despite the potential of earthquake damage to Iran’s BNPP and the impact of the Fukushima crisis on the global nuclear industry, some Iranian officials—including the head of Iran’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority (INRA) Naser Rastkhah—have dismissed concerns over the safety of the BNPP as being “politically motivated.” Other officials, as reported by Iran’s Fars News Agency, have suggested that Iran’s practical capabilities within the nuclear field may be higher than those of Japan, as it is “one of the countries which can help Japan with regard to the damage inflicted on the Fukushima power plant.”

However, according to a 17 May article by the Associated Press, shortly after the Fukushima crisis, Iranian leaders—including Ahmadinejad, the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) Fereydoun Abbasi, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Saeed Jalili, and Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) General Mohammad Ali Jafari—reviewed a report of seismic activity in Iran’s provinces and the potential impact on the country’s expanding nuclear energy programme.

The 2005 report, entitled Geological analysis and seismic activity in Khuzestan: safety and environment, purportedly relied on data collected by Iranian scientists since 2000 and, according to an unnamed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official, found “incontrovertible risks of establishing nuclear sites in the proximity of fault lines” in 20 of Iran’s 31 provinces.

The AP article claimed that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei disregarded the report’s findings and ordered work to proceed on designs for further nuclear reactors. Nevertheless, speaking to reporters on 17 May, Iranian Foreign Minister (and former head of the AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi declared that “Iran’s first priority has always been the safety of the [Bushehr] power plant.”

In addition, Akbar Etemad, the father of Iran’s nuclear programme and the first head of the AEOI (1974 to 1978), has vouched for the safety of the BNPP. In an interview with Iran’s daily newspaper Kayhan, Etemad said that the site of the BNPP was carefully studied for geological features before construction: “Regarding Bushehr’s vulnerability to earthquakes, we studied and conducted research for about two years and finally invited 10 to 15 international earthquake specialists to Iran for about 10 days. They also approved Bushehr for [the] construction of [a] nuclear power plant.” Etemad further noted that the BNPP was designed to resist a direct strike by fighter aircraft and was built to sustain an earthquake with a magnitude of seven on the Richter scale. This has been confirmed by London-based think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which said in a 2011 report “the Bushehr plant is designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude eight and possibly up to nine, the strength of the earthquake that shook Japan’s northeastern coast on 11 March.”

Construction Concerns

The BNPP has a 37-year construction history that may have affected Bushehr’s safety standards. In 1974, the German company Kraftwerk Union AG (KWU) was contracted to build two 1,200 megawatt electric (MWe) power reactors at Bushehr, but work was suspended after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Air strikes during the Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 1988) partially damaged both reactors.

In 1995, Iran contracted Russia’s Atomstroyexport (ASE), a subsidiary of Russian state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom, to rebuild a single 1,000 MWe light water reactor at Bushehr. A major provision of the contract was the integration of a modern Russian VVER-1000 reactor design into the 1970s-era German-built structure and equipment to the fullest possible extent, which—according to Russian security analysts Anton Khlopkov and Anna Lutkova—created a host of technical, engineering, and financial challenges exacerbated by problems that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union. The contract for completion of the BNPP also contained a commitment by Russia to maximise the involvement of Iranian subcontractors during construction, even though the Iranians lacked technical experience.

According to media reports, in 2006 then Russian president Vladimir Putin allegedly ordered ASE to deliberately delay the shipment of fuel rod assemblies to Bushehr in order to hold up progress at the BNPP and delay Iran’s overall nuclear development. Iranian officials have accused Russia of delaying construction over payment disputes. In February 2007, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported that then deputy head of the AEOI Mohammad Saeedi denied Russian allegations that Iran had fallen behind payments for the BNPP, asserting that “Iran has had no delay whatsoever in making payments.” In March 2011, MP Abdollah Kaabi, deputy head of Iran’s Majlis Energy Commission, said that Russia “received 1.5 times more money from Iran than the initial agreement” for construction of the BNPP, as reported by Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency.

Numerous Delays

Additional problems emerged in February 2011 when the IAEA reported that Iran would have to unload fuel assemblies from the BNPP. The plant had been scheduled to go online on 20 February and connected to the country’s electricity grid on 9 April. Rosatom stated that internal damage to one of the reactor’s four cooling pumps had caused contamination of the cooling water, which required the BNPP to be shut down to allow for the fuel to be unloaded, all fuel assemblies inspected, and the reactor vessel to be cleaned before reloading the fuel. In a statement issued on 28 February, Rosatom blamed “design features” for the cooling pump’s failure—a part of the equipment provided in the original build of the plant.

Other technical failures have contributed to delays in the start-up of the BNPP. In October 2010, then head of the AEOI Salehi announced that a leak discovered in the spent fuel cooling pool near the reactor had caused flooding at the BNPP. A month earlier, Salehi blamed “severe hot weather” and some safety concerns—which may have been related to the impact of Stuxnet malware on the plant’s computer systems—for a delay in loading fuel rods, according to Agence France-Presse.

Given the position of Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, as well as the geography and geomorphology of the coastal region, the BNPP is unlikely to be struck by a tsunami of the size that knocked out the electricity and destroyed the cooling pumps at Japan’s Fukushima plant. However, a high magnitude earthquake could potentially disrupt the BNPP’s electrical supply, which would prevent the plant’s already aging cooling system from operating as intended.

IAEA Standards

In the case of a nuclear accident at Bushehr, the AEOI would assume responsibility as the operating organisation of the plant. However, the effects would damage the global nuclear industry, particularly the reputation of Bushehr’s vendor, Russia. The scope of Russian services provided prior to and during the BNPP contract includes consideration of safety standards, but a legislative and regulatory infrastructure for implementing the safe, long-term operation of the reactor has yet to be put into place by Iran.

As the UN body tasked with promoting the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy, the IAEA has conveyed the need for Iran to establish an independent nuclear regulatory authority. In 1999, Iran’s Atomic Energy Council delegated regulatory functions to the INRA, a body re-established to ensure the safe use of nuclear energy in Iran under the AEOI’s supervision. When the INRA invited the IAEA for an Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) mission in 2010, an IAEA press release on the outcome cited notable progress but also a shortage of technical staff and the need for Iran to “replace the existing set of ad hoc regulatory requirements with a comprehensive system of national nuclear safety regulations.” It is unclear whether Iran will address this recommendation.

Moreover, Iran has yet to sign or ratify the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), a crucial system of mutual oversight that commits participant states to maintain a high level of nuclear safety by setting and meeting international benchmarks for the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants. Adopted in 1994, the convention also requires member states to submit national reports to periodic ‘peer review’ meetings held at IAEA headquarters in Vienna.

Although Iran has already ratified the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident and the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, once the BNPP begins to produce electricity, Iran will be the only country operating a nuclear power plant that is not party to the CNS.

In a speech to the IAEA Ministerial Nuclear Safety Conference in Vienna on 21 June 2011, Abbasi declared that Iran had “commenced the legal procedures for the accession to the CNS,” but argued that the IAEA “has constantly forbade the attendance” of Iranian experts in the IAEA’s meetings on nuclear safety. International sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme (including seven UN Security Council resolutions since 2006 relating to the issue) prevent Iran from receiving advanced country oversight and nuclear assistance. Although the BNPP is designed to provide civilian nuclear energy, a blanket sanctions policy against Iran’s nuclear programme makes it difficult for Iranians to obtain visas from countries hosting IAEA seminars, workshops, and training programmes related to nuclear safety.

However, Iran has ignored other opportunities for IAEA consultation on the safety of Bushehr. Since 2002, following an IAEA review of the BNPP’s preliminary safety analysis and environmental reports, Iran has refrained from accepting an offer by the IAEA to send a pre-Operational Safety and Review Team (OSART) mission to the facility—a service which is routinely carried out for IAEA member states prior to the operation of nuclear power plants.

At Russia’s encouragement, Iran accepted membership of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) in March 2002, which was formed in response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and allows for peer reviews to maximise the safety and reliability of nuclear power plants. A WANO peer review was scheduled to be conducted in February 2009, but never materialised—only a small, partial visit was reported to have taken place in 2010. Iran has otherwise withheld full co-operation with WANO in discussions concerning the operation and management of the BNPP.

Regional Impact

If a nuclear accident occurred at Bushehr, it would have not only local but regional implications. Bushehr is located closer to Kuwait City, Dubai, Manama, Bahrain, and Doha, Qatar, than it is to Tehran. Not surprisingly, leaders from Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states have expressed strong concerns about the safety of the BNPP. According to reports by the defence news service Middle East Newsline, in 2006 the Kuwaiti National Assembly’s Environment Committee formed an expert panel to examine the environmental impact of the BNPP. The Bahrain-based Marine Emergency Mutual Aid Centre, of which Iran is a member, has similarly drawn up action plans in the event of a nuclear disaster, according to the Gulf Daily News. Other media reports indicate that Saudi officials have raised serious concerns in discussions with the United States about the possibility of a nuclear disaster similar to the Japanese Fukushima crisis if the BNPP is operated as planned.

Iran’s assurance that the BNPP adheres to the highest possible standards has not allayed safety concerns shared by its Arab neighbours and the IAEA. Iran is responsible for the safety of the BNPP and the IAEA lacks the authority to enforce its safety recommendations in Iran, as publicly emphasised by IAEA deputy director general and head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security Denis Flory. The Fukushima crisis has underscored the need for effective regulation to ensure that nuclear energy is harnessed in a responsible manner, something Iran will need to develop to facilitate safe operations at Bushehr.

First published in Jane’s Intelligence Review.

Nima Gerami is a research analyst at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.

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