As the world anxiously looks to the nuclear reactors in Japan, with a broken down cooling system following an earthquake and tsunami, the dangers and vulnerabilities of nuclear energy production once again come to mind. A country, which is equally prone to earthquakes like Japan, is Iran.
Although less advanced and experienced in this technology, the Islamic Republic is pushing for rapid development of its own nuclear program, including uranium enrichment, and plans to build a dozen new nuclear power plants in the near future.
The Iranian nuclear program, since its discovery by an Iranian opposition group in 2002, is under intense international scrutiny as many world powers believe the Islamic Republic intends to build nuclear weapons; an allegation which Tehran denies. The international community has imposed four sets of sanctions against the country. The US, EU, Canada, Japan and other countries implemented additional sanctions to slow down the development of the nuclear program and to convince the Iranian government to come back to the negotiating table and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yet demands from the IAEA are repeatedly dismissed by the Iranian regime and inspectors are hindered from checking all of the requested facilities.
The Iranian nuclear program presents dangers not only because of the regional strategic changes that would occur once Iran is in possession of nuclear weapons, particularly as it acts in defiance of the international community and IAEA rules and regulations, and because it would likely trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, but also because of the threat that earthquakes, technological malfunctions and human errors could pose to the Iranian people and Iran's neighbors.
Iran is one of the most seismic countries in the word. The Islamic Republic experiences at least one slight earthquake every day and even moderate earthquakes have killed thousands of people in more remote areas. Iran is surrounded by tectonically active zones and has experienced several heavy earthquakes in the recent years striking all sides of the country. Probably the most well known earthquake happened in Bam in December 2003 killing approximately thirty thousand people. A 6.5 magnitude earthquake hit Iran as recently as December 2010.
Surprisingly little attention is paid by scholars and the media to how earthquakes could possibly affect Iran's nuclear facilities. Iranian officials were quoted in articles proposing the relocation of the entire city of Tehran to a different area because it is built on a seismological unstable area. However, there was no mentioning about the safety of a nuclear research plant next to the city.
Iranian nuclear plants such as that in Bushehr have been built over decades with German, Russian and other support and have experienced technical problems due to corrosion in materials and cyber-attacks that caused the plant to malfunction. The internationally imposed sanctions regime currently makes it hard for Iran to acquire appropriate materials. The development of Bushehr has been delayed time and again, among other things, due to a computer virus called Stuxnet which according to Iranian authorities is now eradicated. It was also delayed due to problems with a certain pump in the cooling system, possibly caused by corrosion.
Besides natural disasters or technological problems, any energy producing nuclear plant can also become subject to human errors. The Iranians rely on the knowhow of Russian engineers to build and run the Bushehr plant. They also send about twenty Iranian PhD students to Russia every year in order to gain the necessary experience. However, running a nuclear power plant requires contingency planning which includes all the parties that would be involved in case of an emergency.
The Iranians have a tradition of cooperation with their neighbors in case of oil spills in the Persian Gulf. However, according to a senior security expert in Kuwait, no such cooperation or planning for an emergency has taken place in regard to the Bushehr nuclear plant, much to the concern of Iran's neighboring countries. There is no contingency plan set up and no red phone lines. For Kuwait this is crucial because wind and water currents would transport radioactive materials towards the tiny country before any Iranian city would be affected in the case of a plant disaster. Kuwait, like many other Gulf countries, obtains the majority of its water supplies from the Gulf through desalination. Radioactive pollution of that water would be a major threat to Kuwait's existence.
The prospect of Iran constructing several other nuclear plants, with a regime in defiance of the international law, blocking full IAEA inspections and without contingency plans set up with its neighboring countries, plus the technological inexperience of Iranian scientists and older and compromised building materials only add to the dangerous cocktail of circumstances that the seismological conditions already provide. This should be reason enough for the international community to strengthen its efforts to further prevent Iran from building potential hazardous nuclear plants that could endanger the whole region and beyond.
Gerlinde Gerber currently works as a Communications Associate for the non-profit organization Réalité–EU. She earned her Magister Artium (M.A.) degree at the University of Potsdam and the Free University of Berlin.
This article was submitted for the atlantic-community.org's competition: "Empowering Women in International Relations." It coincides with the 10th Anniversary of UN resolution 1325 calling for an increased influence of women in all aspects of peace and security. The contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.
You can read more submissions from the competition here.