This blog is intended to provide the reader with important world news with an emphasis on Middle East and North Africa. It will publish news, analyses, comments, and opinions concerning those two regions. However, We welcome any comments, news or opinions which are related to their countries. You can visit too www.asswak-alarab.com for more information.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Iran: Waiting For Bushehr
The long wait for Iran's first nuclear power plant is finally
over. It's now online, but is it ready?
By Ali Vaez
Bushehr nuclear power plant
ancient city of Bushehr, a steamy port in southwestern Iran, is bustling with
foreign workers preparing to launch Iran's first nuclear reactor. The Middle
East's only commercial nuclear power plant will soon become operational. Back
in Washington, officials worry about Iran's emergence as an atomic power and
all the many ways it will upset the region's delicate balance. The year is
years later, history is repeating itself. Today, it is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
instead of the pro-Western Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and Russian, not German,
engineers building the nuclear power plant. But some things are nearly the
same: The United States still worries; and the Middle East's only commercial
nuclear power plant, we are told once again, is finally, really, at last about
to become operational.
story of Bushehr is one of ambition and folly, of a country whose nuclear
dreams survived revolution, war, and religious fervor -- and sometimes common
sense itself. But it's not just Iran that is guilty of ambition and folly; so
too are its enemies -- among them the United States, Israel, and its Sunni
neighbors -- whose monumental opposition to a nuclear Iran has created a set of
conditions that virtually requires Tehran now to make good on its goal of
harnessing the atom, damn the consequences. And after more than 30 years of
this tug of war, it's less a question of who will prevail than what's been lost
and overlooked in the fight.
Bushehr story, in fact, goes back decades, to a time long before President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs, when the megalomaniacal shah, endowed
by the oil boom, decided virtually overnight that the country needed nuclear
power to prepare for life after fossil fuels. He famously used to say,
"Oil is a noble material and should not be wasted," and he advocated a
greater part for nuclear power in Iran's energy portfolio. For him, nuclear
technology was not only the sine qua non of modernity -- it also symbolized
Iran's newly attained power and prestige.
the time, the United States, still reeling from India's first nuclear test, was
suspicious of the shah's intentions. Washington refrained from entering Iran's
lucrative nuclear bazaar, but Germany stepped in and Kraftwerk Union AG was
contracted to build two 1,200-megawatt reactors in Bushehr, along the coast not
far from the city of Shiraz, to which the plant would supply power. The turnkey
contract was worth $4.3 billion.
began in 1975; the completion date was set for 1981. But fate proved that
estimate inaccurate by at least three decades. In 1978, when one reactor was 85
percent complete, the country began descending into revolutionary turmoil,
which brought about the demise of both the monarchy and the nuclear program.
of the first decisions of the revolutionary Jacobins who overthrew the shah was
to halt the Bushehr project, deemed as a costly Western imposition on a
self-sufficient, oil-rich nation. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of
the Islamic Republic, famously suggested that it would be better to use the
unfinished reactor buildings as grain silos. But as the wave of revolutionary
fervor receded in the early 1980s, the tide turned in favor of reviving the
nuclear program. By then, however, Iran was engaged in a bloody war with its
neighbor Iraq, and efforts to resuscitate the atomic phoenix came to nothing.
ill-fated reactor even became a target of that war. In retaliation for Iran's
failed September 1980 raid on Iraq's Osirak reactor, Iraq attacked the Bushehr
power plant seven times between 1984 and 1988. By the time the fighting stopped
in August 1988, the uncompleted plant was in shambles. A European firm
estimated that repairs would cost between $2.9 billion and $4.6 billion.
knocked at many doors looking for a partner to complete the Bushehr project,
until finally a cash-strapped Russia took on the task in 1992. Moscow's impetus
for entering the Iranian market was above all to rescue its post-Soviet nuclear
industry from insolvency. On the ruins of the crippled reactor, the Russians
planned to build a sui generis nuclear plant -- an amalgam of left-behind
antiquated German equipment, Iranian jerry-rigs, and scrambled Russian technology.
beset by mismanagement, financial difficulties, U.S. pressure, supply glitches,
and technical problems, the project was to remain an unfulfilled dream for
another decade. Then, just as things were looking up, in July 2010 the Bushehr
reactor became collateral damage in a cyberattack by Stuxnet -- a sophisticated
malicious computer virus -- that aimed at destroying centrifuges that enrich
uranium at another Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz. Although the source of
the virus has never been conclusively ascertained, suspicion has been placed
squarely on the Israeli and U.S. intelligence community. More dark arts
followed: This June, five Russian nuclear scientists who had assisted in the
construction of Bushehr were killed in a mysterious plane crash. A month later,
an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in Tehran by unidentified men on
Bushehr reactor's troubled past could be a prologue to its future. Although the
reactor itself does not help Iran obtain nuclear weapons -- the Russians,
according to a 2005 agreement, supply its fuel and remove its waste in order to
minimize the weapons proliferation risk -- it is plagued with many of the
elements that have contributed to the world's major nuclear mishaps, from
technical problems to political miscalculations to natural disasters.
having no experience in operating nuclear reactors, Iran is insisting on taking
over management of the reactor from Russia only one year after it goes online.
The lack of independent nuclear regulators, the absence of highly experienced
operators, and Iran's refusal to ratify international conventions on nuclear
safety renders Bushehr highly vulnerable to a nuclear catastrophe.
at Bushehr, despite Iranian claims to the contrary, politics is the priority.
Will those politics, as in the Soviet Union's colossal missteps in Chernobyl,
take precedence over safety? In August 2010, yearning to prove that delay is
not defeat, the Iranian government orchestrated a premature launch of the
nuclear plant. This proved to be a major failure: Operators were forced to shut
down and remove fuel from the reactor after an antiquated emergency-cooling
pump broke down.
worrisome, perhaps, is that like Japan's doomed Fukushima nuclear power plant
-- crippled by this March's earthquake and tsunami -- Bushehr is located in an
earthquake-prone area, at the juncture of three tectonic plates. Lusting for
the long overdue inauguration, decision makers in Tehran dismissed warnings
from Iranian scientists in a May 2011 report about seismic threats. Iran's dim
record in emergency preparedness is an ominous sign for the people of Bushehr
and their neighbors in other Persian Gulf countries.
last year, Ali Akbar Salehi, the current Iranian foreign minister who was then
the country's nuclear chief, said, "Despite all pressure, sanctions, and
hardships imposed by Western nations, we are now witnessing the start-up of the
largest symbol of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities." What Salehi failed
to mention was the tiny share of power this large symbol will provide Iran:
Once up and running, the Bushehr reactor will generate 2 percent of Iran's
electricity output, which pales in comparison with the 18 percent waste in the
country's transmission lines.
nearly 37 long years, with the inauguration on Sept. 12 and an official launch
set for the end of this year, Iran'swait for its nuclear Godot is finally coming to an end. But given
Bushehr's ill-fated history, it might be better off waiting indefinitely.
-This article was published in The Foreign
Policy on 11/09/2011
Vaez is a fellow for science and tchnology and director of the Iran project at
the Federation of American Scientists