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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.

HAMED MALEKPOUR/AFP/Getty Images

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