On April 16th, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit southeast Iran causing tremors that could be felt in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and western Saudi Arabia. This is only a week after a worrying 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Kaki, a southern Iranian town located just 60 miles from Iran's Bushehr nuclear power station. The earthquake killed 37, injured hundreds more, and raised concerns over the safety of the Bushehr nuclear power station which sits on the intersection of three tectonic plates making it prone to seismic activity. Russian nuclear experts set up a special commission to inspect the plant after the quake, and Iranian and Russian experts have concluded that the plant was unaffected. Despite this, and highlighting the lack of trust and the seriousness with which they take the situation, the GCC states are calling for the IAEA to send a specialized technical team to examine Bushehr.
Any disaster at Bushehr could have regional consequences for the Gulf, because radiation plumes could spread over Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates. International concerns over nuclear safety and domestic opposition to nuclear power have encouraged some states like Germany and Switzerland to phase out their nuclear reactors within ten years. Given the decision by many other states to continue or expand their programs, and the commitment Iran has made to its program, it would be too much to expect a similar move from the Iranians. However, because Iran is particularly prone to earthquakes, it is faced with a special responsibility to consider nuclear safety.
Nuclear safety is a separate matter to the current impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. As a principle of best practice, and an opportunity to establish positive confidence-building measures with its neighbors, Iran can address fears by considering a positive response to regional calls for them to adopt state-of-the-art international nuclear safety standards. There are several international agreements and Conventions on nuclear security and safety that Iran is not yet signed up to:
- IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety: Iran is the only country with a nuclear plant that is not a party to the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety, which aims to legally commit participating states with nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety.
- IAEA Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management: this legal agreement requires parties to submit progress for “peer review” and establish international benchmarks on design, construction, operation, and safety requirements.
- IAEA Convention on the Physical Protection on Nuclear Material: this Convention is the only legally binding Convention in the area of the physical protection of nuclear material and establishes measures related to the prevention, detection and punishment of offenses related to nuclear material.
- UN International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism: this Convention requires parties to ensure that any nuclear material is held in accordance with IAEA safeguards to reduce the likelihood of materials being used for acts of terrorism.
Iran could also work on increasing its nuclear transparency by allowing inspectors from the IAEA to reassess the current safety of their nuclear facilities, particularly Bushehr, with the intention to consider proposals to improve features within the plant. Bushehr was originally a German-Iranian joint venture, but it was abandoned after the revolution of 1979 and damaged during the Iran-Iraq war. In 1995 Iran signed a contract with the Russian Minister for Atomic Energy to revive the construction. Because of mixed and outdated equipment, Bushehr was forced to shut down in 2011 to clean the reactor core, a failure that was blamed on German cooling pumps from the 1970s. Another worrying feature is that the Bushehr plant is built on foundations laid in the 1970s, which may not be able to withstand a serious quake.
The current disputes with the IAEA have discouraged Iran from a more positive approach, but it is important for everyone to see the opportunities in this dimension. Iran could work with independent IAEA inspectors in this context free from the poisoned atmosphere of accusations and counter-accusations, together to inspect and verify the safety of nuclear facilities after any major event where nuclear facilities maybe damaged.
Bushehr represents a minimal risk of proliferation, and is not therefore sensitive technology either for the Iranians or the rest of the world, but by using Bushehr as an example of international cooperation, Iran could transform the narrative with engagement. Increasing transparency would benefit all parties involved, and could act as an important confidence building measure.
--Analysis and opinion by Victoria Godfrey.
The views expressed here represent those of the author.
Image: On 12 July 2011, HE Mr Ali Akbar Salehi, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran met IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Copyright: IAEA Imagebank | Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA