Iran tries to calm fears over nuclear power plant

Safety concerns over almost completed plant which is closer to Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Manama and Doha than it is to Tehran. Michael Theodoulou reports

Iran says it is preparing to join a key global atomic safety convention, a move that could ease long-standing concerns among its Arabian Gulf neighbours about the Islamic republic's only nuclear power plant.

The Russian-built reactor contains ageing German components from the 1970s, was bombed by Iraq in the 1980s, and is in an earthquake-prone area at the juncture of three tectonic plates on Iran's coast.

The site at Bushehr is closer to Kuwait City, Manama, Doha and Abu Dhabi than it is to Tehran.

Russian technicians are due formally to hand control of the 1,000-megawatt plant to their Iranian counterparts in March. For Iran, this will be a cause for celebration, with Bushehr serving as a symbol of resilience, resourcefulness and resistance to US-led sanctions.

Tehran insists it will guarantee safety at the "quake-proof" plant which was plugged into the national grid in September 2011. Iran dismisses as western propaganda claims that Bushehr is unsafe, or that its own operators are not competent enough to take over from the Russians.

A recent opinion piece in The New York Times warned that "haphazard planning and ongoing technical problems" at Bushehr could make it the "next Chernobyl, igniting a humanitarian disaster and explosive economic damage across the oil-rich region".

With prevailing winds blowing from east to west in the Gulf and coastal currents that circle anti-clockwise, "radiation fallout would contaminate oil fields as well as desalination plants" that provide fresh water for GCC states.

Responding by letter to The New York Times on January 15, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, repeated his country's standard line that Bushehr follows the "highest safety standards".

But, apparently aware that Iran's jittery neighbours want more than soothing words, he revealed that Tehran has "started the internal legal procedure" to accede to the 75-member Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS).

That accord boosts safety practices through a system of peer review, obliging members to submit their safety standards to international scrutiny.

"Iran seems to be signalling to its neighbours that it is aware of their concerns and wants to reassure them," said Peter Jenkins, a former ambassador of the UK to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog.

"Peer review will enable Iran's neighbours to become more familiar with Iranian safety norms and to voice concerns if they perceive reason to do so," he added.

Iran's accession to the CNS - a measure long urged by western officials and the IAEA - would "be a good step", agreed Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. "Iran so far is the only country operating a nuclear reactor that is not part of the convention, which requires greater transparency and adherence to best practices on nuclear safety."

Even nuclear-armed powers such as Israel, India and Pakistan -which, unlike Iran, have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - have ratified the CNS.

GCC states are likely to remain sceptical and grudging until Iran actually signs the accord. "Definitely it would be a good move [if Iran joins the CNS], but we've heard this before," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre. "If the Iranians present this as a goodwill gesture, we don't see it this way - it's their duty to join this convention."

Anwar Eshki, who has served as an advisor to Saudi Arabia's cabinet of ministers, said that the Kingdom does "not believe that Iran is qualified for nuclear activities".

The 1994 accord was designed to bolster nuclear safety after the 1986 disaster at the Russian-designed reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine. The issue gained fresh urgency following Japan's Fukushima nuclear crisis two years ago.

Concerns about Bushehr were prominent at last month's GCC summit in Bahrain. Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, urged Iran to cooperate more with the IAEA to "ensure the safety of the region's states and its people from any affect of radioactivity".

He referred to a "technical failure" at Bushehr in October when the reactor was shut down for two months, reportedly to limit any damage after stray bolts were found beneath its fuel cells. Iran denied there had been any mishap.

While there are safety concerns about Bushehr, it is not regarded as a proliferation risk. It runs on imported fuel from Russia, which insists on the return of spent material. This aspect of Bushehr is monitored by the IAEA, but the agency's remit does not extend to inspecting for compliance with nuclear safety standards.

Of far more concern to the international community are uranium enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordo in central Iran. These produce fuel that, if further enriched, could provide the fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

Bushehr aside, Gulf Arab states share western suspicions that Iran's atomic programme is aimed at developing nuclear weapons capability, a charge denied by Tehran, which insists its atomic programme is solely peaceful.

The Bushehr plant dates back to 1974 when Iran's US-backed ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, contracted Siemens to build the reactor. The German company withdrew after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Russia took over its completion in 1995, but Bushehr has been bedevilled by repeated delays and technical problems.

The plant now has components from Russia, Germany and Iran. "That is not how you make a safe nuclear power plant," the New York Times article said.

But Mr Fitzpatrick, a former US state department official, believes such fears about Bushehr are "overstated". A lot "could go wrong" with the plant, but it is nothing like Chernobyl, he said, adding that Russia re-designed its reactors after that disaster and Bushehr is now equipped with western-style safety mechanisms.

"I don't think Bushehr presents as great a risk as some have portrayed," he said.

The plant is designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8 and possibly up to magnitude 9, the strength of the quake that struck Fukushima, the IISS said in a report last year.

But, the study added, Iran does not need to fear a tsunami of the size that knocked out the electricity and back-up cooling systems at Fukushima because Bushehr is not located by the ocean.

Other analysts argue that Russia has a strong incentive to ensure Bushehr operates safely. A serious accident there would scupper lucrative contracts Russia has to build nuclear power reactors in another dozen or so countries.

Mr Jenkins meanwhile pointed out that it was the "meticulous Germans" who initially agreed to the site at Bushehr, adding: "They would be averse to locating a reactor in an area that presented obvious safety risks."

* With additional reporting by Elizabeth Dickinson

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