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Interview: Nuclear-Risk Expert On Iranian Earthquake

Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant lies on an active fault line.
The epicenter of the April 9 earthquake in Iran was located 100 kilometers from the country’s Bushehr nuclear plant -- a facility shrouded in mystery and closed off to UN inspectors.

Gary Sandquist, a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah who specializes in radioactive waste management and risk assessment, co-authored a prescient opinion piece in "The New York Times" this past January that warned about just such an event and the consequences that could arise.

He spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher about the earthquake.

RFE/RL: In January you co-authored a piece in "The New York Times" that warned about the active fault line that Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant sits on. You said it carries the "risks of a Fukushima-type catastrophe." What was your first thought when you heard that there was an earthquake 100 kilometers away?

Gary Sandquist: Well, I was very surprised. I know that’s a seismically active country and apparently they’ve had a long history of seismic activity. And [a magnitude of] 6.3 is about comparable to what they’ve had in the past. But there is a great concern, no question about it. If it had been much larger, I’d have been worried about a tsunami in the Persian Gulf.
Gary Sandquist
Gary Sandquist

The Iranians discounted that, and said that’s not of concern, but they have recently removed some of the spent fuel from the reactor and where it’s stored, I don’t know, how it’s stored, I don’t know. That was the big problem at [Japan’s] Fukushima [nuclear plant in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami]: the spent fuel was out in areas that were not well controlled, and when the water washed in, it knocked out the cooling system.

Spent fuel is thermally hot and if you don’t maintain cooling, it can overheat, and that’s one of the problems they had.

RFE/RL: If this had been a larger earthquake, what would Iran and the region be dealing with right now?

Sandquist: People are inclined to think that Richter magnitude 6, and 7, 8 just go up by a factor of one – actually, it’s an increase of 10 for each power. So a Richter magnitude 9 is a thousand times greater intensity than a 6. So 6.3 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. If such an event happened [near Bushehr], the [effect on the] reactor would be insignificant compared to the other damage that would occur in the [Persian] Gulf.

RFE/RL: In your "New York Times" piece, you stressed the need for robust emergency-response plans wherever nuclear plants are located. How do you judge Iran's preparedness?

Sandquist: You know, the Iranian society is so closed, it’s difficult. The Iranian officials always respond and say, "Well, it’s more than adequate," and "trust us," but even the Japanese now are admitting that their facilities and response were not fully adequate to protect the people at Fukushima as a result of the tsunami. In my own view, Iranians are not well prepared for a major [event]. Had that Richter magnitude not been 6.3, but let’s say 7 or 8, it would be a much different story.

RFE/RL: Do you believe the Iranian officials who said there was no damage caused to the plant?

Sandquist: I don’t. I’m a little concerned. They did pull some of the spent fuel out of the reactor, and the question is: where is it? The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] is not allowed to inspect the facility, 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." And then later on you find out there were real problems. Even the Japanese, to some extent, were responsible -- people tend to do that.

If you’ve got a facility that potentially impacts the public, your first response is that the impact is negligible, and then later on you find out it really wasn’t. So it’s hard to say. I have no real, significant knowledge as to what’s happened there. But Iran -- well, they’re covering up much of their facilities and their operations -- they won’t allow IAEA inspectors in -- so why would they admit to anything more significant here?