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Bushehr Setbacks Trigger Iranian Nuclear-Safety Concerns

  • Robert Tait

Workers stand in front of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, south of Tehran

Workers stand in front of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, south of Tehran

Repeated delays in the opening of a showpiece Iranian nuclear reactor are triggering concerns over Tehran's ability to safely run a civilian nuclear-power plant without the risk of a catastrophic accident, analysts say.

The worries have been provoked by the latest setback to hit the Bushehr plant, where, according to a report published last week on Iran's nuclear activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), engineers are being forced to remove 163 fuel rods. Russia's state nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom -- whose scientists have helped to build the plant -- said this week that the action was needed after damage was discovered at one of the reactor's main cooling pumps.

It is the latest in a series of hitches for the reactor, whose construction has cost more than $1 billion.

Analysts have largely ruled out sabotage, in contrast to problems at Iran's uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, a complex that is widely thought to have been deliberately targeted by a computer virus, Stuxnet, which some experts believe to have been conceived by the United States or Israel in an effort to slow down parts of Iran's nuclear program with the potential to produce a bomb.

Instead, they believe it highlights deficiencies in Iran's capacity to competently operate a plant like Bushehr on its own. Unlike Tehran's uranium-enrichment program, which has been subject to a series of sanctions by the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union, Washington and its Western allies dropped opposition to the Bushehr project after Russia agreed to take back the plant's spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing. That move allayed concerns that Iran might be able to reprocess the material itself into weapons-grade plutonium, a different route to a bomb from enriching uranium.

But David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, warns that inadequate attention to safety at Bushehr has the potential to trigger an accident on the scale of the 1986 disaster at Chornobyl in the former Soviet Union.

"There is a sense that: Is Iran ready? Is it able to have a very highly developed safety culture?" Albright says. "One of the issues, then, is how good is all this equipment? And these recurring media reports, IAEA reports, that there [are] problems there just further undermines confidence that Iran, when it takes over the operation of the reactor from the Russians, will be able to operate safely in the long run."

Not Signing Up To Safety

Technical problems, Albright says, have been caused by the task of trying to graft modern Russian technology onto a much older model originally developed by West Germany, which originally won the contract to build the reactor in the 1970s, years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

When West Germans abandoned the contract after the revolution, the Bushehr plant stood partially completed for years. It was bombed and badly damaged during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and its equipment was looted. The project was revived in the 1990s with Russian help but has run into repeated difficulties amid claims from Moscow that Iran was delaying payments.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Bushehr's problems are "technical"


According to Mark Hibbs, a specialist on Iran's nuclear program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it is not just that tortured history that is giving cause for concern. More worrying, he says, is Iran's nonparticipation in established international safety conventions.

"Iran has chosen not to cooperate extensively with the outside world in sharing information about the way it will operate the project. Iran is not a member of the International Nuclear Safety Convention. It is the only country in the world which will be operating a power reactor which is outside of this convention," Hibbs says.

"So if there's a concern about Iran it is a concern about the way the Iranians are managing the project and the lack of information the rest of the world will get. Every other nuclear power reactor-operating country in the world is operating on the assumption that the more information is shared internationally, the safer the reactor will become."

The effects of such isolation are compounded, Hibbs fears, by the impact of the sanctions against Tehran's separate uranium-enrichment activities, something the West believes is aimed at building an atomic bomb despite Iran's insistence that it is intended to produce domestic energy.

"One of the problems is the fact that Iran has been developing this project and building the reactors and learning how to operate the reactors when the country has been under sanctions," Hibbs says.

"This is a hidden danger because the sanctions were intended to deprive Iran of the means of developing nuclear weapons. But the sanctions have also indirectly contributed to a loss of safety on the margin of this project. So it may be very difficult in fact to separate the civilian power reactor from activities in the fuel cycle which sanctions were intended to attack."

Speaking in Geneva on March 1, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, described the problems at Bushehr as "exclusively" technical and said he expected them to be resolved within three months. "We cannot operate in a way that creates, even if it is hardly likely, any risk," he told a news conference.

Analysts point out that Russia has a powerful vested interest in preventing any future mishaps at Bushehr, since a major disaster would torpedo its highly lucrative goal of becoming a leading exporting of nuclear fuel technology.

Thus, Albright says, fears about Iran's ability to operate the plant safely could act as incentive for Russia to drag its feet over completion.

"What could be happening is [that] the Russians are losing confidence in Iran's ability to operate Bushehr and they don't want to be stuck with the bill, which would be billions of dollars if there's a major accident," Albright says.

"And so they may be thinking that, given the trend lines, maybe we should kind of hedge our bets and delay the start of Bushehr. Because once you start it, it's really traumatic to turn it off. So if you were losing confidence in Iran's ability to run a plant, now's the time when you would act."
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