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Hichem Karoui: Bushehr: Worse has not happened
April 14, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

An important meeting of the GCC is expected to discuss on Sunday, April 14, 2013, an issue that has utterly worried people in the Gulf: the earthquake and the Iranian nuclear plant of Bushehr.

Two years ago, in March 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami killed thousands of people in Japan and sent multiple nuclear reactors at Fukushima into meltdown, spewing radiation over a wide area. The disaster reminds us that nuclear reactors built in earthquake zones are never safe, even if the country is Japan, where people own technology, expertise, and experience in dealing with both nuclear energy and earthquakes.

How about Iran? A country that is still far away from matching Japan, in respect to the same issue?

The April 9 earthquake marked one of the heaviest earthquakes near Bushehr since the completion of the 1,000-megawatt nuclear energy facility in 2012. It destroyed 12 villages, killed at least 37 people and injured more than 800. Its epicentre, reported at between 6.1 and 6.5 on the Richter scale, was at Kaki, some 100 kilometres south of Bushehr. Arab and Western officials have long warned that the reactor, built by Russia, could be destroyed by an earthquake, with nuclear fallout reaching much of the Gulf region.

When in September 26, 2006, Russia and Iran agreed on a start-up date of September 2007 for Iran’s first nuclear power station at Bushehr, on Iran’s southwestern Gulf coast, the observers were hardly surprised. They knew since almost one year that Iran has secretly built a network of tunnels and underground facilities with the help of two Russian scientists in an effort to conceal parts of its atomic and missile programmes. An Iranian exile group had unveiled the issue, in December 2005, alleging the facilities conceal nuclear equipment, research workshops, and nuclear and missile command-and-control centres. It said the information was based on sources within the Iranian establishment, but did not identify them. The dissident group claimed it had received information about 14 locations where these tunnels and underground facilities have been built near Tehran, Isfahan, Qom and some other cities.  It said Iran has used front companies and technology imported from other countries for the tunnel construction project. It also claimed the Iranian Tunnelling Association – founded in 1998 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s current president – has played a vital role to cover up the regime’s nuclear- and missile-related tunnel construction project. Two Russian scientists, whom the group identified only as  Andre Kridiko  and Lakht,  had  cooperated with the Iranian regime in building these facilities.

Nor did the Bushehr project go without opposition inside Iran. In March 2005, in Paris, the same dissident group revealed in a press conference a confidential report by the Iranian parliament, entitled, An appraisal of the conduct of the Atomic Energy Organization,  prepared in February 2004. It was filed with the Parliament’s office of infrastructural research.

In the appraisal section, the report notes, taking into account the abundance of gas in the country and a 200-year life span for our gas reserves and the low cost of generating electricity from gas, 1.5 cents for each kilowatt of electricity, it is not clear on what economic and technical justification as well as what human resource and practical potential and most importantly, what uranium reserves, officials of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) talk about generating electricity from nuclear power. Investment in nuclear power is 2.5 times the investment in steam fissile power plants. It must be mentioned that Iran has little uranium reserves. The known uranium mines can only provide 20 per cent of the fuel for Bushehr’s 1200-megawatt nuclear power plant. We can therefore expect that the entire appropriation for this project would be wasted similar to the funds allocated to this programme before the revolution in 1979.

Bushehr was an $800 million reactor construction programme, a project that Tehran said is intended strictly for electricity generation. The United States, however, accused Tehran of using the project as part of an effort to build atomic weapons. While the Bush administration opposed Iran’s construction of the Bushehr reactor, it has shown support for a Russian agreement to ship all reprocessed fuel rods back to Russia.

Reporting to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Jack Straw, former British Foreign office Minister said, the only power station currently being built is the one at Bushehr, which relies on fuel exclusively from Russia. They were seeking to develop a research heavy water reactor, which produces plutonium, not necessarily the best buy if you are generating electricity. But an essential buy if you are trying to make hydrogen bombs.

Ali Safavi, President of the Near East Policy Research, noted that the Iranian regime has organised its nuclear programme in two parallel, autonomous systems — a civilian and a military programme — that ultimately fall under the supervision of the Supreme Leader and a close circle of trusted advisers. The main agency in the civilian programme, said the Iranian expert, is the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI). It is responsible for power plants such as the Bushehr light water reactor and the nuclear fuel cycle activities, including the mining site in Saghand, the yellowcake producing sites in Bandar-Abbas and Ardakan, and the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan.

This programme is not just a cover for the military programme,  said Safavi,  but also provides it with both technological expertise, a pool of experts and access to the necessary materials and equipment. For this reason, AEOI itself is under the supervision of the Supreme National Security Council. The military programme is controlled by the secretive Supreme Military Committee, made up of the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, IRGC Commander in Chief, and Defence Minister. All three are from the Revolutionary Guards. The IRGC and the Defence Ministry run the nuclear weapons programme, with the IRGC effectively in control of activities in the relevant departments of the Defence Ministry. The Supreme Military Committee reports directly to Khamenei.

After the April 9 earthquake, (which we felt in Doha), Iran and Russia made some allaying statements. Personally, I trust neither Russia nor Iran. They have no political or technological credibility.

We expect that the GCC meeting takes all necessary measures to protect the population in case the worse occurs.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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