Iran Signals Continued Delay in Ratifying Nuclear Safety Pact: Is the Bushehr Power Reactor Safe?

by David Albright and Andrea Stricker

June 22, 2011

On June 21, Iran’s atomic energy chief, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, in a speech to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference on nuclear safety in Vienna, held to review safety standards in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, indicated that Iran is in no hurry to join the international Convention on Nuclear Safety. Abbasi-Davani said that Iran has started the process of ratifying the pact, but that it would first need to consider whether or not it conflicts with its rights. Iran is the sole country with a significant nuclear power program that has not signed the 1994 convention. Such resistance is troubling given the operational problems at the Bushehr nuclear power plant and the fact that, despite Russian assistance, Iran is new to the process of implementing regulations governing the safe operation of nuclear power plants. Iran has thus far resisted calls by the IAEA and the international community that it ratify the convention. At the IAEA meeting, Abbasi-Davani instead took the opportunity to dismiss concerns about its safety standards and criticize IAEA Director General Amano for focusing on Iran’s compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at the expense of global nuclear safety.

Iran is widely reported to have risked safety at the Bushehr reactor in its attempt to speed up the project and save costs. The Bushehr nuclear plant has encountered numerous delays in start-up and has not yet begun to produce electricity. Iran now claims that Bushehr will begin producing electricity in August 2011. The plant first reached criticality in May after numerous delays stretching back years. In February 2011, a broken water pump caused small metallic pieces to infiltrate the reactor cooling system, leading technicians to unload the fuel rods to prevent damage to the fuel assemblies. In October 2010, a leak in the spent fuel pond caused significant flooding at the plant, according to Russian workers, but then-head of Iran’s atomic energy agency Ali Akbar Salehi, told the media the leak was insignificant.1 There have also been serious concerns about the presence of condensation in the reactor cooling system, which can be destructive.2

To make nuclear electricity production economical and convince the Iranian government to approve the completion of the Bushehr reactor, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) mixed the Russian design with large amounts of aged German structures and equipment dating back to the 1970s when Germany undertook the Bushehr project. Iran spent more than $1 billion on the first Bushehr reactor before Germany suspended construction after the Iranian Revolution. The broken pump was one of the pumps supplied by Germany years ago.

The Iranian regulatory body governing operations and safety at the Bushehr reactor is a subsidiary to the AEOI, the national sponsor and main proponent of nuclear power, raising questions of the independence of its regulatory authority. A U.S. expert who led an IAEA mission to inspect Iran’s safety regulations in early 2010 said in an interview with Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, “From what we saw, it looks like they function relatively independently, but legislatively they’re tied to AEOI, which always raises a question mark for the future.”3 Lack of regulatory independence is rejected throughout the world because it can significantly compromise safety, as the recent Fukushima accident in Japan reconfirmed.

In May, a secret report written by Iranian scientists leaked, which cautioned that the Bushehr plant could also experience a major earthquake leading to a disaster similar to the melting down of the reactors at Fukushima. Scientists specifically expressed concern about Bushehr’s foundations, which also date back to the 1970s.

The IAEA mission to inspect Bushehr in early 2010 recommended that Iran join the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, which Iran has not yet done. It also recommended that Iran “replace ad hoc regulations with a ‘comprehensive system of national nuclear safety regulations’ and that ‘the number and expertise of technical staff should be increased and career incentives should be established to attract and retain them.’” It is unclear when Iran will address all the recommendations. The U.S. expert interviewed by Nuclear Intelligence Weekly also noted that to the detriment of Iranian regulators’ education, Iran has not been allowed to participate in IAEA nuclear safety meetings due to sanctions, a point echoed by Abbasi-Davani at the Vienna nuclear safety meeting.4

Iran should not delay making necessary improvements in nuclear safety or conflate its safety shortcomings with its refusal to cooperate with the IAEA on resolving a range of questions about its nuclear weapon-related activities. The Iranian regime has a responsibility to its citizens and neighbors to safely operate the Bushehr reactor. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, given Iran’s history of earthquakes, its newcomer status to nuclear power, and legitimate concerns about its regulations and equipment, Iran should immediately sign and ratify the safety convention, grant independence to its regulatory authority, implement all the recommendations of the IAEA safety team, and subject its safety standards to rigorous independent peer review.

Iran has time to institute these reforms before it assumes responsibility for the reactor’s operations. Initially, Russia will run the reactor, and Iran will take over after one year when Russia’s guaranteed period of assistance ends. Iran must make a priority of avoiding another catastrophic accident, particularly one caused by avoidable shortcomings already experienced and corrected by other nations.

1 Gary Peach, “Iran: Spotlight on Bushehr Safety,” Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, February 14, 2011.
2 Ibid. 3 Stephanie Cooke, Phil Chaffee, and Gary Peach, “Iran: Iranian Nuclear Regulation – Not Tough Enough?” Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, February 14, 2011. 4 Ibid.

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