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Japan's Nuclear Disaster: Sobering Lessons for Iran

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

20 Mar 2011 22:53Comments
BushehrFisheye11Mar.jpgGrave questions over safety regulations, enforcement, contingency plans in earthquake-prone country.

[ analysis ] A byproduct of the 8.9 earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami that killed as many as ten thousand people and inflicted economic losses totaling tens of billions of dollars has been the ongoing nuclear disaster there. Four nuclear reactors -- all at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant -- out of Japan's total of 54 have been seriously damaged, and two additional reactors are at risk.

First, there was an explosion on Saturday, March 12, that ripped the roof off the building in which one of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors is housed. Workers had been trying to cool off the reactor, which had begun overheating and raising the level of radiation. According to the Japanese government, the main containment vessel remains intact. Two days later, despite the injection of seawater to cool off the vessel, fuel rods in a neighboring reactor began melting. The day after that, an explosion ruptured the torus and breached the primary containment vessel of the second reactor. The vessels are lines of defense against extensive release of radioactive materials. Thick plumes of steam rose above the reactors. A similar explosion destroyed the building that housed a third reactor.

Reactor number 4 had been shut down before the earthquake for maintenance. But an explosion on March 15 damaged its building. This reactor and the three others are threatened by spent fuel rods that are kept in the water pools. The water in the pool of reactor 4 was boiling when the explosion occurred, and fire was reported there. Temperature in the pools of reactors 5 and 6 at Fukushima Daiichi began rising. There was a real possibility that the spent fuel rods would explode, sending thousands of tons of toxic nuclear materials into the atmosphere and threatening the lives of millions of Japanese people.

All the explosions have been caused by hydrogen, a highly explosive gas that is produced by the fuel rods that are either in the reactor, or are kept in pools of cooling water after they are spent to control their temperature and keep them stable. The water contains nitrogen-16 and tritium, or heavy hydrogen (a heavier isotope of hydrogen). They are radioactive, but not dangerous. The half-life of nitrogen-16 -- the time that it takes to decay and lose half of its weight -- is only seven seconds. Tritium radiation is weak and does not travel long distances, but its half-life is 12 years. Reports indicate that radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137 have also been released, which indicates that the reactor cores are in trouble. The iodine, which has a half-life of eight days, is very dangerous to human health, as it can eventually cause cancer if absorbed in sufficient quantity. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years. It is the primary culprit in the contamination of Ukrainian territory after the Chernobyl disaster that occurred on April 26, 1986.

The fuel rods are made of a zirconium alloy and contain ceramic pellets of uranium oxide that are about the size of a fingertip. When in operation, thousands of the rods -- typically 12 feet long and very thin -- are stacked together and become very hot as a result of nuclear reactions. Pressurized water circulates around them, drawing off the heat and generating steam to be used in turbines for electrical generation. (Water under atmospheric pressure would evaporate quickly due to the heat of the nuclear reactions, which is why pressurized water is used.) If the zirconium is exposed, it begins rusting (oxidizing) very rapidly, which results in the alloy becoming very brittle. This leads to fracturing of the alloy, hence releasing the aforementioned volatile radioactive elements. The rusting also produces the hydrogen gas. Although the nuclear reactions were successfully stopped after the earthquake, it is the residual heat that has been partly responsible for the problem. As the released radioactive gases decay, they also generate extra heat, exacerbating the crisis.

Japan's Ministry of Health has been forced to increase the legal limit of radiation exposure to be able to keep about 50 workers at reactors 1 and 2, who are trying to cool them by pumping in seawater. The exposure cap, which had been 100 millisieverts (the sievert is the standard radiation dose equivalent unit), has been raised to 250 millisieverts, which is five times higher than the legal limit in the United States. The ministry was forced to raise the cap, because otherwise it would have been forced to order the evacuation of all workers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. See the latest update from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) describing what is going on.

The Japanese nuclear disaster has already prompted debates around the world over the wisdom of using nuclear reactors for generating electricity. Concerned by the effect of fossil fuels on global warming, even major environmental groups in the United States have been warming up in recent years to the use of nuclear reactors. The U.S. nuclear industry, which had been largely dormant since the Three Mile Island accident -- involving the partial meltdown of a reactor core -- near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1979, was being revived.

The events in Japan also have important implication for Iran's nascent nuclear industry. If Japan -- an advanced country that has been operating nuclear reactors for decades, is accustomed to frequent earthquakes, has in place some of the most stringent nuclear industry regulations, and boasts one of the best nuclear infrastructures in the world -- can suffer from such a disaster, what would happen in Iran if the Bushehr reactor comes online and an earthquake of similar scale occurs there? What would happen in Arak, if the heavy water nuclear reactor, called IR-40, under construction and due to come online in 2014, suffered a major accident, either as a result of an earthquake or other factors? And what about the Darkhovin nuclear reactor and power plant, which Iran began constructing in 2008 and is supposed to come online in 2016? In the case of Darkhovin, 45 miles (70 km) south of Ahvaz, on the shores of Karoon River, the design of the reactor, based on IR-40, is completely indigenous. What are the nuclear safety standards in a country like Iran, which has been operating only the small Tehran Research Reactor for four decades?

Seventeen of Japan's nuclear reactors are run by Tokyo Electric Power Co., including those that have been damaged by the tsunami. There were revelations in 2002 and 2007 that the utility had faked repair records. The revelations forced the company's chairman and president to resign, and all 17 reactors were shut down for three weeks. There is an extensive history of accidents, faked reports, and inaction by Japanese administrations, especially those run by the Liberal Democratic Party. Japanese academics have attributed part of the problem to overconfidence in plant engineering. There have been repeated calls for fundamental improvements in engineering standards at Japan's nuclear power stations. In fact, the cascade of events at Fukushima Daiichi was largely predicted in a 1990 report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which identified the dangers of a earthquake-induced diesel generator failure and power outage leading to the failure of the reactors' cooling systems. Apparently, no action was taken in response to the report. If data and safety record falsification routinely takes place and specific warnings go unheeded in Japan, what are the guarantees that the hardline regime in Tehran will do any better?

To answer such questions, we must first understand whether the reactors are in areas that frequently experience earthquakes or other large-scale natural disasters. We do know that Iran has experienced many large earthquakes over the past 50 years. When I was very young, there was a 7.1 earthquake in Bou'in Zahra, a large village in Qazvin province, 95 miles (150 km) west of Tehran, that occurred on September 1, 1962. (There was another large earthquake in the same area in 2002.) I was living with my family in Tehran, which was shaken strongly by the earthquake. It killed over 12,000 people and prompted a nationwide response to aid those who survived. In particular, there was the effort in the capital led by the very popular Qolam-Reza Takhti (1930-1968), a world champion wrestler and member of the opposition National Front. Many other major earthquakes have followed around the country.

It has been known for a long time that there are many large and active faults in Iran. There are three such faults in the Tehran metropolitan area alone: one in northern Tehran in Qeytariyeh, a second in southern Tehran in Robat Karim, and a third to the southeast between Tehran and Varamin, a town about 20 miles (35 km) away. As a scientist who has been involved in earthquake research for two decades (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) and who lives in California, another earthquake-rich region of the world, I am only too keenly aware of the dangers of a large earthquake. Iran does have an active earthquake research program, and there are many stations that record seismic activities online. The map of the regions in Iran where earthquakes happen regularly includes the south, where Bushehr is located.

One problem in Iran is that the major earthquakes are typically as strong as 6.5 or greater on the Richter scale. Such earthquakes are considered large anywhere in the world, let alone Iran with its poor and often unenforced rsafety egulations. The earthquake that occurred on April 10, 1972, in Ghir-Kaarzin in the southern province of Fars measured 7.1. It killed nearly 5,400 people, and the death toll was not much worse only because the area was sparsely populated. The Tabas earthquake in the eastern province of Khorasan that occurred on September 16, 1978, measured 7.8 and killed 15,000 people (see here for a picture). The Manjil-Rudbar earthquake in the northern province of Gilan that occurred on June 21, 1990, was measured around 7.5 and killed 50,000 people. The Bam earthquake in the southern province of Kerman that occurred on December 26, 2006, measured 6.5 and killed more than 26,000 people.

But while earthquakes can neither be accurately predicted nor prevented, with proper preparation the potential casualties from a major earthquake can be minimized. The Loma Prieta earthquake that struck San Francisco on October 17, 1989 and was measured at 7.1, killed only 57 people, 42 of them due to the failure of the Cypress Street Viaduct on the Nimitz Freeway (Interstate 880) in Oakland, where a double-deck portion of the road collapsed, crushing the cars on the lower deck. Compare this with the fatalities resulting from earthquakes of comparable magnitude in Iran. Many, including the author, believe that if a large earthquake occurs, for example, in Tehran, hundreds of thousands of people will be killed.

As the foregoing survey of large earthquakes in Iran indicates, there have not been large earthquakes in or near Arak, Bushehr, and Darkhovin; nor in or around Isfahan, where Iran's uranium conversion facility is located; nor in or around Natanz, site of Iran's main uranium enrichment plant. In fact, the Bushehr site was selected by the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi because studies indicated that it is a relatively safe region. (There was a 4.6 earthquake in Bushehr in 2002 that did not cause significant damage.) In addition, since 2005, when nuclear materials were taken to Natanz, there has not been an accident in any of Iran's nuclear facilities.

However, all of these areas are not too far from the regions where large earthquakes have occurred. The possibility of having large earthquakes in any of the cities is not negligible, especially because Iran has experienced very large earthquakes over the past 50 years. Thus, let us consider Bushehr, the site of Iran's first commercial nuclear reactor, which is supposed to come online in the near future.

What are the main faults in the province of Bushehr and the areas close to it? There is one that starts in Kazeroon, 75 miles (120 km) from Bushehr, and continues all the way to the Persian Gulf. There is an active fault in Borazjan that has caused many destructive earthquakes. A third fault, 80 miles (130 km) long, is 55 miles (90 km) east of Bushehr. The area around Firoozabad, which is 105 miles (170 km) from Bushehr, experiences many earthquakes.

The next issue is the quality of the nuclear infrastructure. The Bushehr facility has been reportedly built on polymeric shock absorbers over nine feet thick that can resist earthquakes up to a magnitude of 8. There are supposedly several layers of barriers to prevent radiation leaks, and the main building where the reactor is housed is supposed to be very strong. Provided that strict safety regulations are enforced, the facility should therefore be secure.

NuclearPlantWorker.jpgBut are strict safety standards being followed at the facility, and what is the awareness of the people who live in the area about the perils of living near a nuclear reactor? Have the people of Bushehr been informed and educated about what to do if there is a nuclear accident? No, there is absolutely no record of it. Iran is ruled by a regime and a political elite whose members have left no doubt about their absolute disregard for people's lives. This is a regime that is not accountable to anyone, as it considers itself God's representative on earth whose Supreme Leader is appointed by Him and merely discovered by the people.

What are the nuclear safety standards in Iran? I do not know, and there are conflicting reports about them. But, when, for example, the half-finished railroad between Isfahan and Shiraz is inaugurated just for the purpose of spectacle, a railroad on which trains can not go faster than 12.5 miles (20 km) an hour and passengers have to get off in the middle of a road, can we honestly expect high safety standards for nuclear facilities? (See here for a picture of the railroad in "operating" condition.)

On the other hand, in February, fuel rods that had been inserted in the Bushehr reactor were removed as a safety precaution. It was reported on February 28 that a shattered cooling pump at Bushehr forced its shutdown during the reactor's initial start-up phase. Given that the reactor is of hybrid Russian-German manufacture, there have always been concerns about its safety. For example, the pump for the cooling system was provided by Germany in the late 1970s, and Russia integrated it with the rest of the system to reduce the cost of the project, on which $5.4 billion has been spent over the past several decades. Russian experts then removed the nuclear fuel to clean the reactor core. They also began cleaning the primary cooling system and removing metal shards that resulted from the pump's failure. The potential safety issues at Bushehr are the consequence of its hybrid design, the inexperience of Iranian experts, and Iran's reluctance to join international safety monitoring programs. In addition, the reliability of some of the original components of the reactor is unknown -- the shattered pump being just one example.

The Islamic Republic had only one major safety consultation on the Bushehr reactor with the IAEA last year, after which the IAEA warned that Iran's nuclear regulatory agency is short on staff and that the workers at Bushehr are under-trained. In addition, abiding by strict safety regulations for such a large-scale, sophisticated system requires a culture of safety that usually develops over years, and it is doubtful that such a culture currently exists at Bushehr, regardless of how resourceful Iranian workers and experts may be. There is no question that concerns over the safety of Bushehr are hyped by some in the West. Nevertheless, legitimate issues remain.

Are there any evacuation plans in case a nuclear accident does happen? There is no record of it. Most likely, the people of Bushehr will be on their own. Just as the reactionary clerics and government officials ask people to address the chronic drought problem by praying for rain, they would probably ask people to do something similar in the event of a nuclear disaster.

Is there any contingency plan for a worst-case scenario to evacuate the people and to control radiation contamination? There is no record of such a plan, and I doubt there is one.

Since a nuclear accident will make the area in the vicinity unlivable for hundreds of years, is there any plan to relocate the people and help them rebuild their lives? Again, there has never been any public discussion of such a plan, and I doubt that there is one. Iran's rulers would probably treat Bushehr the way the Soviet Union's leaders treated Chernobyl, as an expendable city, or believe that divine intervention will protect the population.

Part of the safe operation of nuclear reactors and plants has to do with transparency about there possible dangers. The IAEA inspectors monitor the nuclear reactors, but they do not operate them, nor can they prevent an accident caused by a large earthquake or tsunami, or both. The IAEA is also not in the business of informing and educating the common people who live in the vicinity of nuclear facilities. When there is much to complain about the dearth of candor by the officials in Japan, a democratic country, about the nuclear disaster, why should anyone be optimistic about the candor of Iran's government, one of the most secretive regimes in the world?

The Iranian ruling elite has four main characteristics: (1) It views everything as a security/political issue and is consequently paranoid. (2) It is highly secretive. (3) It hates to be wrong, which means that it will never take any advice if it contradicts its beliefs, even if it benefits the citizens. And (4) it is accountable to no one. A non-nuclear nation might be run by such a group for a while, and we saw what happened in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election (and before that). But with extensive nuclear facilities in place, such an approach to governance is deeply detrimental to the safety and security of the citizens.

Add to these the fact that Iran has been suffering from a major brain drain for years. Many of the best and brightest of the country's youth have departed in search of a better life, and many refuse to return under the present conditions. Just consider the case of the Stuxnet virus that was designed by Israel and somehow inserted into the computer systems at Natanz and Bushehr. Precisely due to the brain drain and lack of computer expertise, Iran was totally unprepared to tackle the problem with the virus. Reports indicate that it took quite sometime to even recognize that there was a problem.

The nuclear industry is a sophisticated one that needs some of the best engineers, scientists, and managers. There are still many such engineers and scientists in Iran. After all, if Iran did not have the expertise, it would not have been able to set up its nuclear program. But, there are not enough of them. Most importantly, when it comes to the issues of safety, the management of nuclear facilities and nuclear fuel -- particularly nuclear waste generated by the reactors -- public education, and contingency plans in case of a disaster, there is no indication that the country is prepared and has the necessary experts on hand.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ilk also love to show off. His regime wants to begin full operation of the Bushehr reactor as soon as possible, even if its officials pretend otherwise, so that it can be presented as a great victory over the West, as well as one of his administration's signal achievements -- never mind that the bulk of the work setting up Iran's nuclear program was done by the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations, that the Bushehr reactor was the Shah's idea, and that it was Mir Hossein Mousavi who, as prime minister in the 1980s, pushed for the program's resumption after it was drastically cut back by Mehdi Bazargan after the 1979 Revolution.

If a nuclear disaster does occur in Iran, the West will also be partly responsible. It was Germany that refused to complete the two reactors at Bushehr. It was the United States that blocked Iran from acquiring Western technology to complete the current reactor, forcing Iran to sign a contract with Russia. It is the United States and its allies that have politicized the IAEA, forcing it to cut back on its scientific and educational collaborations with Iran and focus solely on monitoring the nuclear program. It is also the United States that prevents any international organization to be involved in any type of scientific program in Iran that might benefit the country's people and their awareness about the benefits, but also perils, of nuclear energy.

For years I have supported Iran's nuclear program for peaceful purposes, because I believe that not only is it the nation's fundamental right to nuclear technology in the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also that Iran will benefit from the technology. I also believe it is economical to produce electricity using nuclear reactors, but it is not economical for Iran to enrich uranium, given its presently known uranium deposits. However, as I emphasized in a television debate last year, running such a program requires a wise government whose first priority is protecting its people and their fundamental rights, including the right to live in a safe and nonhazardous environment. When people languish in jail for years simply because they have peacefully protested violations of their basic rights, when all that matters to the hardliners is the preservation of their power, and when instead of uprooting the vast corruption that even the judiciary acknowledges exists, it is treated as a sort of state secret, why should anyone believe that such a government and political system is adequately prepared for a nuclear catastrophe?

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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