By Arab News
By Roger Harrison and Michel Cousins
Saudi and Kuwaiti environmentalists have expressed serious concern about the safety of Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr, some 250 km on the other side of the Gulf from the Saudi-Kuwait border. This follows the explosions at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor as a result of earthquake and tsunami damage last Friday.
Like the Japanese reactor, the Iranian one is built in an area of seismic activity. The concern is accentuated by the fact that while Japan has the highest standards in the world for the design and construction of buildings in earthquake zones, Iran does not. In the Bam earthquake in 2003, 30,000 people died as buildings collapsed all about them. In the one in Manjil in 1990 over 40,000 people perished.
While thousands have died in Japan as a result of the tsunami on Friday, very few did so because of the earthquake. An explosion at Bushehr would have disastrous consequences, according to Jassem Al-Awadhi, a Professor of Geology and the Environment at Kuwait University’s science faculty. The outcome would be “similar to those of the Chernobyl disaster for the whole region,” he said. According to Al-Awadhi, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research’s seismological center has detected daily seismic activity in the coastal area of western Iran bordering the Gulf. “This is caused by this site being the meeting point of three continental plates — Arabian, African and Eurasian plates,” he said. He wanted to know whether International Atomic Energy Agency standards were followed in Bushehr’s construction.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the most threatened if there were an explosion at Bushehr, given the prevailing northwesterly winds in the Gulf, but radioactive fallout could easily hit the cities and oilfield of the Eastern Province necessitating mass evacuation. Bahrain, and Qatar could also be hit.
Dr Ibrahim Aref, from the forestry and environmental studies department at King Saud University in Riyadh fears it could be worse. An explosion would affect not just the Eastern Province, he says, but the whole Kingdom. He points out that carbon deposits from the 1991 oil well fires in Kuwait were found as far away as Asir.
In the 1996 Chernobyl disaster, even Iceland was affected by radioactive fallout.
What also worries Aref is that few people across the Kingdom are aware of the risk, and even fewer take it seriously. “People need to be concerned,” he says. “There needs to be more awareness of a possible disaster at Bushehr. If Japan which is well equipped cannot cope, why expect Iran, which is not, to be able to do so?”
Contingency plans need to be made, he said. Equipment, such as breathing masks needs to be held ready in case of an emergency. All towns across the country should have equipment to monitor radioactivity. He called on Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries to set up an inquiry into the possible consequences of an explosion at Bushehr. Concern about safety standards at Bushehr and the potential dangers are being publicly voiced in Eastern Province, he added. “Bushehr sits on an active tectonic plate and should, God forbid, something like Japan happen there, we in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and in Kuwait will be the first ones to get the radiation-laden wind blast,” said Abdul Aziz A. Al-Khalidi a science teacher in Alkhobar. “Weather experts have confirmed in recent articles in newspapers and websites that the wind blows in our direction from Bushehr and we are therefore quite alarmed. Nature’s fury can wreak havoc any time and there are lessons to be learned from what is happening in Japan. We are therefore highly concerned about Bushehr nuclear plant,” he said. Scientists should alert both the public and the government about the dangers posed by the reactor, and specifically to the Eastern Province.
The head of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, Moflih Al-Qahtani, also wants the GCC to investigate the potential dangers at Bushehr if there were an earthquake. “Should leaks take place, lives could be lost and there would be high risk of cancer” he said. Saudi Arabia and other GCC state had every right to have their concerns addressed by Iran. If necessary, the GCC should take them to the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
On Tuesday, Iranian President Ahmadinejad claimed that the reactor was safer than the damaged Japanese one. “All safety rules and regulations and the highest standards have been applied to the Bushehr power plant,” he told Spanish television broadcaster TVE. “The security standards there are the standards of today. We have to take into account that the Japanese nuclear plants were built 40 years ago with the standards of yesterday.”
In fact, Bushehr was first started by German companies in 1975, then abandoned after the Iranian revolution, was seriously damaged by Iraqi bombing during the Iran-Iraq war, and is today is today in part a Russian construction. The Russians agreed to take over the project in 1995. The merging of Russian and German technologies has not been easy. After 25 years in the make, the reactor was only finally launched last August but is still not in production. Just three weeks ago, Rostom, the Russian energy company rebuilding the plant said that one of the four main cooling pump had been damaged, necessitating the remove of the fuel core, further delaying the project.
Bushehr is the only reactor Iran admits to. A second plant, Bushehr II, was originally planned but has been effectively shelved. Nineteen other reactors for civil use are planned, the next being at Darkhovin, less than 100 kilometers from Basra in Iraq.
Bushehr is located on the eastern edge of the Arabian Tectonic Plate that is slowly colliding with the very mobile Eurasian and Iranian Plates a short distance inland east. According to Allan Jack, a geologist with Bariq Mining, any area close to the edge of a moving tectonic plate is at major risk of increased seismic activity.
Rob Willmot, an industrial electromechanical consultant said that the Japanese plant was built to withstand earthquakes and in his opinion did so. “The problem seems to be that the tsunami took out the generators supplying the pumps that power the cooling system for the reactors,” he told Arab News. He added that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was built to the world’s highest standards of earthquake proof construction.
Willmot’s observations echo the focus on cooling-system pumps. Those in the Iranian facility were “supplied to Bushehr in the 1970’s and, under the current contract, Russia was obliged to integrate them into the project,” Rosatom, said in a Feb. 28 statement following the pump failure three weeks ago.
“To cut costs the Russians had to agree to use certain parts supplied by the Germans,” said Bill Horak, chairman of the nuclear science and technology department at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and an expert on Russian-built reactors.
“The rest of the world is depending on the Russian Federation for policing the nuclear safety of this reactor,” said Mark Hibbs, an expert on Iranian nuclear issues at the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. The pump failure, he added, raised questions about the decisions the Russians made to move forward with emergency coolant system that was 30 years old.
A senior engineer for a Saudi-based construction company, who requested anonymity, was less than sanguine about the quality of the work on the Bushehr plant. “We have just seen the immense power of seismic activity and its devastating effect on infrastructure”, he said, “and this was in a country that has the toughest building regulations in the world and enforces them to the letter. I doubt that the Bushehr plant is built to anything like the same standards.” He added that he would not want to live anywhere downwind of the facility.
— With contributions from Walaa Hawari and Siraj Wahab