Fault Lines, Not Red Lines

Why the earthquake near Iran's dated and unproven nuclear reactor at Bushehr should scare you.

A 6.3-magnitude earthquake shook Iran's southern shores on Tuesday, April 9, on the afternoon that the country was celebrating its National Nuclear Technology Day. Nearly 800 homes were destroyed, killing 37 people and injuring more than 900. Iran's sole nuclear reactor, located in Bushehr, almost 100 miles from the quake's epicenter, was, according to Iranian and Russian officials, unaffected. But there's no way of knowing until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report comes out in May. Either way, they got lucky.

The Bushehr reactor, which was completed in 2011, sits at the intersection of three tectonic plates and is designed to endure earthquakes up to a magnitude of 6.7 on the Richter scale. So this was a very close call for the hybrid German-Russian reactor -- a virtual petri dish of amalgamated equipment and antiquated technology. The sui generis nature of the reactor means that Iran cannot benefit from other countries' safety experiences.

It also means regular mechanical breakdowns. During tests conducted in February 2011, all four of the reactor's emergency cooling pumps (holdovers from the 1970s) were damaged, sending tiny metal shavings into the cooling water. The plant's engineers were forced to thoroughly clean the reactor's core, an operation that further delayed its long-overdue launch. Again, in October 2012, the reactor was shut down and fuel rods were unloaded after stray bolts were found beneath the fuel cells.

The Bushehr reactor is under IAEA supervision, and its technology is deemed not prone to proliferation. As such, it has been exempted from the U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran. But there is still some international confusion as to the point of the facility: Iran is rich in oil, and power generated by the Bushehr plant accounts for less than 2 percent of Iran's electricity production. Meanwhile, despite the enormous sums spent to bring the facility online, approximately 15 percent of the country's generated electricity gets lost through old and ill-maintained transmission lines.

But more worrisome is the perilous state of the new -- and yet old -- reactor. Any nuclear disaster at Bushehr would have regional implications. Given that the prevailing wind in Bushehr heads south-southwest, the release of radioactive material could threaten civilians in other Persian Gulf countries. Bushehr is closer to the capitals of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province than it is to Tehran. That's why the emir of Kuwait recently urged Iran to enhance its safety cooperation with the IAEA. The cost of cleanup, medical care, energy loss, and population relocation could approach hundreds of billions of dollars over decades, and release of highly radioactive fission products would be highly detrimental to human health and the environment. Yet Iran's ambassador at the United Nations maintains that Iran's nuclear facilities are "state-of-the-art" and present no "undue risk to the health and safety of their personnel, public, next generations and the environment."

In any case, it's unclear who would be held responsible and shoulder the costs in the case of a nuclear accident. The Russians would likely blame the old German technology; the Germans could be expected to say that they had nothing to do with the plant for more than three decades; and the Iranians could shun responsibility as a nonparty to the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage.

The Iranian government's poor record of anticipatory governance and crisis management is another source of concern. The scale of destruction, morbidity rates, and number of casualties stemming from Iran's natural disasters are unusually high. In December 2003, when an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale hit the southeastern city of Bam, more than 26,000 Iranians died, nearly 30,000 were injured, 100,000 were displaced, and 85 percent of the buildings and infrastructure in the city were destroyed. In contrast, a 6.5-magnitude quake that struck San Simeon, California, just a few days earlier resulted in only three fatalities and damaged 40 buildings.

The Iranian government has neglected to address basic questions about its preparedness for a nuclear emergency, including the lack of evacuation drills for Bushehr residents. These problems are rooted in the fact that the media are prohibited from examining the issue and the main governing agency, Iran's Nuclear Regulatory Authority, is not an independent body.

In the absence of a proactively vigilant public and pervasive culture of safety, a rigorous and independent nuclear regulator -- as exists in many other countries such as the United States and Germany -- is vital for prioritizing safety and security over all other interests. The IAEA has encouraged the Iranian government to provide the country's national regulatory body with all authority and resources needed to fulfill its functions independently. To date, there is no evidence that Iran has heeded this recommendation, along with other suggestions such as increasing the quantity and the level of expertise of the body's technical staff members.

As a result of the politicization of Iran's nuclear program, safety concerns have become secondary issues. The Iranian leadership's political drive to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of international sanctions and boast about its technological capabilities has repercussions, such as the insistence on the premature takeover of the Bushehr plant's management by Iranian technicians. Its current Russian operators are slated to run the reactor for only the first two years after its official September 2011 start-up and then are to hand over control to the Iranians. Given that most nuclear accidents around the world have been caused or exacerbated by human error, this lack of training increases the likelihood of a catastrophe. To make matters worse, international sanctions have deprived Iran of international nuclear assistance and have prevented Iranian scientists from participating at safety workshops.

Iran's refusal to adhere to international conventions that define the norms of safety and security in the field of nuclear technology is also troublesome. With Bushehr becoming operational, Iran is the only nuclear power country that is not a signatory to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which establishes a system of mutual oversight that sets international benchmarks on the siting, design, construction, and operation of reactors.

Nuclear safety concerns should neither be exaggerated nor neglected. But instead of Iran dismissing the warnings, the reverberations that shook the ground in Bushehr should serve as a wake-up call for Iran to improve its nuclear safety standards.


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Bahrain's Continuing War on Doctors

The Bahraini government needs to stop targeting medical professionals who dare to treat injured protesters. 

When the Arab Spring swept through Bahrain in 2011, citizens there -- just as in other Middle East countries -- took to the streets demanding political and economic reforms. Also just as in other Middle East countries, peaceful demonstrations were soon met with a violent crackdown by government forces.

When it began, I knew that it was my duty as a nurse to help. So I made my way to Salmaniya Medical Complex, Bahrain's only public hospital, to do what I could to aid the overwhelmed staff, even though I did not work there myself. What I witnessed was horrifying: Evidence of the use of live ammunition, bodies battered by tear gas canisters fired at close range, and protesters blinded by the use of bird shot. In the months that closely followed, nearly 50 people were killed as a direct result of the violence against protesters, a number which has risen to over 100 since 2011.

As a healthcare professional, it was my duty to aid the injured. But as a witness to the Bahraini security forces' violent response to the peaceful protests, I also felt a duty to speak out against the abuses. Many of my colleagues who felt the same way spoke on the record with the media to describe the types of injuries they had seen, shedding light on the nature of the government's brutality. After authorities barred ambulances from bringing injured protesters to Salmaniya Medical Complex, we joined in protests to demand that the wounded have access to the hospital and care.

As health care professionals, we felt a need to speak out against violations of medical neutrality. The government felt a need to silence us. And so in response to exercising our right to free speech, security forces attacked medics and brought Salmaniya hospital under military occupation. To justify their actions, the Ministry of Interior and state-controlled media falsely reported that healthcare workers were refusing to treat injured security forces. The truth is much more appalling: Security forces occupying Salmaniya hospital used their proximity to medical workers and patients to gather information about protesters. The sixth floor of the facility was used to interrogate patients, many of whom were suffering from severe injuries. As a result, patients with sometimes life-threatening injuries were afraid to seek treatment out of fear of being interrogated, or worse, by government security forces. It was these sorts of egregious actions by the government that my colleagues and I sought to expose. In turn, we soon became the targets of government brutality ourselves.

In March 2011, the Bahrain government began detaining and interrogating healthcare workers. On April 4, in response to a summons, I presented myself to the Bahrain Central Investigation Department for questioning on my role in the uprising. While in detention, I was given electric shocks to my head and face, and threatened with rape. What happened to me also happened to dozens of other medics. Since the uprising, 82 medical professionals have been arrested on a variety of politically-motivated charges meant to intimidate citizens from speaking out against the government's abuses. Their stories of receiving physical and emotional abuse were documented in a report released in May 2012 by Physicians for Human Rights.

In August 2011, 52 of those medics were sentenced by a special military court to prison terms ranging from one month to 15 years. Charges against me personally included attempting to overthrow the regime, spreading false information, and participating in an illegal public gathering. I was convicted on 12 counts and was sentenced to 15 years. These convictions were later reviewed by a civilian court, which upheld the convictions of nine medics and acquitted nine others, including myself. This past March, an additional 21 medics were acquitted, but the convictions of more then a dozen medics still stand.

Since my five-month ordeal in prison, and despite the constant threat of being imprisoned again, I have been an outspoken advocate for medical neutrality; the principle of non-interference with medical services in times of conflict. Medical neutrality requires all sides of a conflict to obey the following principles: civilians must be protected from the conflict and not targeted; medical professionals must provide care to the sick and wounded, regardless of affiliation; and medical facilities, transport, and personnel must be permitted to tend to the wounded without interference.

Denial of medical care is a breach of human rights, and its abuse in Bahrain has been well-documented. (See, for example, this latest report by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.) The government of Bahrain did not respect the rules of medical neutrality during the uprising of 2011, and attempts to speak out against this breach of trust between the medical community and the government were swiftly punished -- a discredit to the government of Bahrain and a disgrace to our country.

I remain in Bahrain, though I am no longer allowed by the government to work as a nurse. As one of the fortunate Bahraini medics to have been freed from detention, I now feel it is my obligation to advocate on behalf of not only my colleagues in prison in Bahrain, but of other healthcare professionals around the world who have been the victims of medical neutrality violations. For most, it is unthinkable that a medic would be punished for treating injured victims and bearing witness to those crimes. Regrettably, this is a reality too many healthcare professionals face today. That is why I call upon the government of Bahrain, and governments around the world, to respect the tenants of medical neutrality and to release those medics still in prison for simply doing their job. I may no longer be in prison, but I cannot truly be free until my colleagues are as well.

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