Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Nuke Plants in a quake zone

Amir Taheri, The New York Post:
IN the present state of scientific knowledge, it is still impossible to forecast earthquakes. Nevertheless, we know which parts of the globe are most likely to be struck. And in the center of perhaps the most active of these zones is the Iranian Plateau - where at least one nuclear reactors is now under construction, with more planned.

Over the past century or so, Iran has experienced more earthquakes than any other part of the globe - at least one tremor each day. Last week's earthquake in the south-central province of Lorestan is the latest reminder of that fact.

Since Iran started properly recording earthquakes in the late 1940s, it has suffered at least one "big one" every decade: Torud (1950s), Boein-Zahra (1960s), Tabas-Golshan (1970s), Qazvin (1980s), Rudbar-Tarom (1990s) and Bam (December 2003). By official estimates, these earthquakes claimed the lives of 126,000 people, injured a further 800,000 and made 1.8 million people homeless. At times, the damage from one quake amounted to more than 7 percent of the nation's GDP.

It is thus surprising that the safety aspect of Iran's nuclear program has received little attention.

Inside Iran, the debate has been propelled away from real issues with the help of jingoistic slogans. Abroad, the accent has been put on security issues, with reference to the program's suspected military dimension.

As far as I am aware, the safety issue has not been seriously raised either at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or at the U.N. Security Council, which debated Iran's program last month.

Yet the safety risk for the region is readily manifest. Even if the program has no military dimension, it would still be prudent to demand that it be put under a moratorium until this issue is fully, and publicly, debated inside and outside the country.

The program began under the Shah in the 1970s; it was never explained to the Iranian public and never debated in the parliament. Several reports, including one by Stanford University, that expressed concern about locating nuclear power stations in earthquake zones were never published. Nor was there any public inquiry on how and why the Bushehr Peninsula - one of Iran's most quake-prone areas - was chosen as the location of the first nuclear power station.

The spot, known as Hellieh, was once the site of half a dozen villages. It was abandoned in the 1940s when a major earthquake wiped the villages off the map. Nearby are the remains of Siraf, the region's most important port until it was destroyed in earthquakes in the 10th and early 11th centuries.

The English-language daily of Tehran, Kayhan International, raised concerns about the location of the nuclear plant in 1977. The German consortium (headed by Siemens) charged with building the plant, answered with a promise to commission a special study. But that promise was never fulfilled; building proceeded with no proper assessment of earthquake risks.

The project was 75 percent complete when the revolt of the mullahs began in Iran in 1978. The Germans abandoned the work, and Iraqi airstrikes destroyed what had already been built in the 1980s.

When the program was revived in 1989, it was the turn of Tehran University's Geophysical Centre to raise concerns on grounds of safety. A study was commissioned by then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani in 1993 and completed in 1995. It has never been published, but parts have leaked - warning that the plant, as designed, might not withstand tremors of 7 or more on the Richter scale.

An official Iranian government report at a 2005 international conference in Kobe, Japan, puts the area where the nuclear plant is located at the center of the country's most active earthquake zone.

Other facts make the safety issue even more pressing. READ MORE

First, no proper assessment was ever made of the damage done to the half-built plant before building was resumed in the year 2000. Siemens and its partners have refused to hand over the initial plans, so the new contractors, a consortium of Russian firms, have been obliged to proceed mostly by guess work. In June 2000, a number of Iranian nuclear scientists wrote to then-President Muhammad Khatami, expressing concern that a hasty mixture of German and old Soviet designs and building methods might not be a good idea. They received no reply.

Second, there is, as yet, no agreement on how and where to treat the waste water produced by the Hellieh plant. Early plans to just let it flow into the waters of the Gulf could pose a major ecological threat - wiping out the region's fishing industry and/or threatening the desalination plants used by many Gulf states to produce up to 80 percent of their water.

Nor is there yet agreement on what to do with the plant's nuclear waste.

Under both the shah and the mullahs, Iranian decision-makers have been fully aware of the risks involved in building nuclear plants - and so chose to locate them in sparsely populated areas. That strategy, however, did not take into account Iran's neighbors in the western coast of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman - where 40 percent or more of the population lives close to the perimeter of danger.

The Islamic Republic has decided to build seven of the nuclear stations planned under the shah. The second will be located at Dar-Khwain on the River Karun, which flows into the Gulf via the Shatt al-Arab. The third will be built in the Jas Peninsula almost opposite the Mussandam Peninsula in Oman.

The world needs to put at least as much importance on the safety aspect of the Iranian nuclear program, which is readily manifest, as on its security aspect.

Building nuclear power stations, especially when designed by Russians and Chinese firms that are subject to no international scrutiny, on the world's most active earthquake zone might not be the best of ideas either for Iran or its neighbors.

Amir Taheri was the executive editor of the Iranian newspaper Kayhan before the revolution. He is a member of Benador Associates.