Two tremors in two weeks, and many questions for Iran

The creation of a "radiation watchdog" will not solve the Iranian nuclear problem; what is needed is Iranian adherence to the Nuclear Safety Convention.

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Two earthquakes in two weeks: that's what Iran and Gulf countries have experienced this month. The second, in south eastern Iran, was 10 times stronger than the first on April 9, which was only 78 kilometres away from Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant.

The plant sits just across the Gulf from several capitals and major cities. It is no surprise then that the region has reacted by virulently criticising Iran and called for the establishment of a "radiation watchdog" to monitor Bushehr.

But the creation of such an organisation would not solve the problem; what is needed, for starters, is Iranian adherence to the Nuclear Safety Convention.

Let's examine what we know about the plant. Bushehr is a light-water moderated and cooled reactor, built using German and Russian technology. It is no Chernobyl, which used graphite moderators that were flammable. But Bushehr's mash-up of different technologies in an ageing structure leads to frequent mechanical breakdowns and blurs attribution of responsibility should an accident occur.

Bushehr sits on the intersection of three tectonic plates. This means that like Fukushima, the area is prone to earthquakes. But unlike Fukushima, the fact that it sits on the Gulf, a shallow and closed body of water, means that it is not susceptible to tsunamis of the kind witnessed in Japan in March 2011.

While the seismic activity might logically have argued for a different location for the reactor, Bushehr was chosen partly for its access to cooling water, with the expectation that engineering could overcome the higher risk from earthquakes.

Experts inside and outside Iran emphasise that Bushehr is built to withstand earthquakes. But what causes concern and debate is exactly how strong an earthquake it can survive.

The Russian designer affirms that such reactors can endure earthquakes of magnitude 7 on the MSK-64 scale while being operated, or magnitude 8 under safe shutdown. But this is very different (and much less) than the claim made by Russian and Iranian officials - that the reactor is safe for earthquakes up to a magnitude 8 or 9 on the Richter scale, or magnitude 8 and possibly 9 on the MSK-64 scale.

Scales used to measure the strength of earthquakes provide only a rough measure of expected damage. The impact on a facility is dependent on the type of soil at the location, duration of the earthquake and distance from and depth of the epicentre. This accounts for some difference in measures of how much shaking Bushehr can withstand. But not all of it.

Iran was quick to deny that Bushehr had been affected by either of the recent earthquakes. And the Russians followed suit. The IAEA, meanwhile, confirmed that there had been no radiation leak based on information provided by Iran and its own analysis. The plant was, it seems, "under maintenance". Or rather, a number of setbacks had delayed it from becoming operational.

A crisis was averted. This time.

The GCC countries are nervous because Bushehr is located closer to some of their capitals than to Tehran. Winds in the Gulf blow from east to west, making the Gulf States vulnerable to any radiation leaks. The Gulf's water supplies would also be disrupted because of the nature of coastal currents (circling counter clockwise). In addition, high temperatures in the area mean the plant's cooling function has to work much harder and dust makes it difficult to keep the equipment clean.

On April 15, the GCC secretary general said the regional bloc was studying ways to establish a nuclear radiation monitoring centre in the region, to enable rapid detection of radiation leaks from Bushehr and "mitigate the effects of a nuclear disaster". Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, dismissed the request to send a technical team to inspect Bushehr as a "political gesture and propaganda", adding that IAEA inspectors are present and regularly inspect the plant.

Mr Abbasi is right; the IAEA visits Bushehr routinely and periodically. Iran's statement on April 17 that it was willing to host an IAEA inspection is neither a breakthrough nor a concession. Because of the many risks, over the years the IAEA has insisted on careful seismic checks and geological surveys of the area. Iran has also accepted an IAEA operational safety review at Bushehr and IAEA missions have reviewed safety regulations for the plant.

But Iran is the only country operating a nuclear power plant not party to the Convention on Nuclear Safety. The convention ensures adherence to international safety standards and additional safety reviews.

Russia, however, is a party. Moscow is also a leading exporter of nuclear technologies and is aware that its commercial reputation is at stake. It was therefore careful in giving Iran the green light to begin testing the plant, albeit still too hasty given malfunctions in the past few years. The IAEA is also getting Russian input on the ground, just not in the form of official transactions.

So where does this leave us?

The priority should be to press Iran to join the nuclear safety convention and to be completely transparent about Bushehr operations. Iran should cooperate further with visiting IAEA officials to receive safety training. The GCC, along with the IAEA, should continue to encourage Iran to submit Bushehr to regular safety checks to carry out subsequent recommendations, and to keep the region fully informed.

Finally, Iran should make its nuclear regulator, the Iran Nuclear Regulatory Authority, independent from other government authorities. The problem is independence from government is not so easy in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Although the safety of the plant is in question and efforts must focus on Iran joining the safety convention, it is important to remember Iran too has an incentive to keep the plant safe: the citizens of Bushehr are Iranians, and their safety is the concern of the Islamic Republic.

Dina Esfandiary is research associate in the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London