By Arab News
Serious concerns have been raised about building standards and safety at Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr. In the wake of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor, they are valid concerns. The Japanese nuclear plant exploded as a result of the earthquake and tsunami last Friday. The Iranian reactor is in an earthquake zone. If something similar happened there, the consequences for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states would be catastrophic. At its very worst, the Eastern Province would have to be evacuated, including the oil fields. So too would Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Even if that were not the case, vast amounts of people would flee in fear of their lives, terrified that the prevailing northwesterly winds would bring radioactive fallout to their homes and workplaces. Some environmentalists have warned that the contamination could spread across the entire Arabian Peninsula.
Three days ago, responding to questions about safety at Bushehr, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted that not only does it comply with the latest safety regulations, the technology and standards are more up-to-date than those in Japanese reactors.
We would love to believe those assurances, but we do not. That is not because of an instinctive suspicion of anything the Iranian president says. It is because what he says is patently untrue — and he must have known it.
The Bushehr plant has been 36 years in the making. The technology employed is a mishmash of the new and the old. Started by the Germans in 1975, abandoned after the Iranian revolution and then bombed by the Iraqis, Tehran insisted in 1995 when it handed over the project to the Russians to complete that they include German equipment that had been paid for. That equipment includes the reactor’s cooling pumps.
Last August, Bushehr was formally launched with the loading of nuclear fuel into the reactor. It should have been fully operational by now, but three weeks ago one of those pumps shattered. The fuel had to be removed and the project is again delayed.
The pumps are any reactor’s Achilles’ heel. In Japan, it was not the Fukushima reactor chamber that was damaged last Friday by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami; it was the pumps. The fuel rods have to be kept cool or there could be meltdown. That has to be the fear with Bushehr — all the more so given that it is in a seismic zone and what has already occurred to one of the pumps.
Across the world, countries are now re-evaluating their nuclear plans. China is the latest, withholding approval for four new plants. Given what has happened plus the questionable standards at Bushehr, Ahmadinejad’s assurances cannot be accepted.
Safety must come first. The world has seen enough of nuclear accidents — Three-Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and now Fukushima — to be afraid. In the light of what has happened in Japan, there has to be an inspection of the Iranian reactor. That investigation has to be independent, preferably by the IAEA. Assurances by the Iranian government will not do.
This is no attempt to use Bushehr against Tehran. Iran has every right to nuclear energy. It is the way of the future. It is the way Saudi Arabia and some other GCC states intend to go. But it has to be safe. Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners have every right to know that the Bushehr reactor poses no threat to them whatsoever.