How Iran Risks Another Chernobyl
Image Credit: Bernd Brincken

How Iran Risks Another Chernobyl


Russia’s relations with the “near abroad” – those countries it considers directly under its sphere of influence and manipulation – is a relic of the country’s long history of buffering the heartland from external threats through conquered vassal states. The Russian Federation’s nuclear cooperation with Iran, epitomized by the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran, is no different.

Scratch beneath the surface of the Bushehr project and you soon encounter dysfunctionality and safety concerns that echo back to Russia’s own nuclear facilities, which include 11 Chernobyl-type reactors operating to this day, 26 years after the accident. An even closer look lays bare a smoldering core of safety problems – problems that go largely unnoticed because international attention is so often focused on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons development efforts.

To understand just how dangerous things have become at the plant, it’s worth going back to when Iran’s nuclear power aspirations began, in 1974, when Germany’s Siemens Kraftwerk Union (KWU) was contracted to construct two turnkey 1,200 MWe pressurized water reactors. Construction began the next year, and completion was scheduled for 1981. Soon after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the project was cancelled, but abruptly restarted a few years later. KWU then abandoned the project in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war, and when faced with an international embargo against the transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies.

Russia agreed to take over completion of KWU-designed Unit-1 in 1992, and construction started in 1995. But Moscow soon abandoned completion work on the reactor to propose its own design, essentially restarting the project from scratch. Another blow came in March 1998, when Ukraine reneged, largely under pressure from the United States, on its TurboAtom subcontract with the Russians to supply two turbine-generators to Bushehr.

The checkered history of the plant has continued ever since, with significant construction delays and safety concerns plaguing Bushehr. Russia, of course, continues to insist that it’s merely fulfilling its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to provide peaceful nuclear technology to non-nuclear signatories (although the economic rationale for an oil-rich country like Iran to operate a nuclear power reactor is strained at best). But the highly-anticipated International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, released on November 8, 2011, undercut this view, expressing concern over military links to Iran’s civilian nuclear power program and the development of nuclear weapons.

The IAEA report noted unease over the recent installation of advanced centrifuges at Iran’s underground Fordow site (near the holy city of Qom) to cut uranium enrichment time, itself an indication that the Stuxnet computer virus was unable to shut down fully the Iranian enrichment initiative. Uncharacteristically blunt in its language, the IAEA also said it believed there might be a link between nuclear material enrichment and the modification missile delivery systems, and that it is increasingly concerned:

“…about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency continues to receive new information.”

Yet at the end of 2009, in the face of all evidence to the contrary and even as Iran was acquiring uranium enrichment technologies, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeniy Primakov asserted that Iran had no nuclear weapons program. Why? Well for a start Russia is ever eager to sell nuclear reactors abroad. When Bushehr was first connected to the grid at the beginning of September, Russia began to push for a revival of talks between the West and Iran regarding its uranium enrichment facilities. This is because Russia is also eager to sell Iran its own fuel to power Bushehr, which means any future reactors designed and constructed by Russia will burn their fuel: indigenous Iranian enrichment and fabrication capacity would cut into a lucrative nuclear fuel supply contract.

There are supposedly no plans currently for the construction of more reactor units, but Russia’s nuclear economic aspirations are clear – and this raises some troubling points.

Daniel White
November 15, 2012 at 23:12

Very disappointing to see such bad quality of content and propaganda.

@The Diplomat: you are loosing reading and credibility by publishing such articles.

Alexander Sich
April 23, 2012 at 22:59

Mr. Gardner:

Rather than unsupported assertions, perhaps you could back up your words… and not ignore, among many examples, the November 2011 IAEA report. Or, are they (as well as other referenced, verifiable points I make) inconvenient truths?

William Gardner
April 14, 2012 at 12:20

Hass is correct.The article masquerades as a scientific critique but is flooded with hubris and bias.
Iran is within its legal rights to design, manufacture and install nuclear powerplants and whether a few people think these plants are not economically necessary is irrelevant.

The nuclear power projects of Iran are under surveillance by the IAEA and they have never said there is any evidence of military weapons being made. To imply such is the case is sheer dishonesty.

Alexander Sich
March 15, 2012 at 06:25


1st paragraph: You conveniently avoid both
(a) the point of the article (the enrichment problem IS a direct nuclear weapons proliferation problem and for which the Iranians REFUSE to permit inspection of the facilities… and expensively bury them deep underground: if they don’t have weapons or weapons grade material what are they hiding?)
(b) what about the November 2011 IAEA report mentioned in the article?

2nd paragraph: Of course the VVER is different from the RBMK. If you had read the article carefully you would have understood what was addressed were external and internal pressures that DO impact the operational safety margin writ large (see the summary list at the end of the article). Perhaps you have access to Bushehr’s Safety Analysis Report (including environmental impact analysis)? If so, then please share those with the world. Also, why do you ignore the construction delays and design difficulties, the lack of trained personnel and operating experience, and Russia’s terrible construction track record?

3rd paragraph: It’s not just one safety convention and it’s not a “recent” one. Iran has not joined (1) the 1996 Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) and it is the only country REFUSING to do so. Neither has Iran joined the (2) Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material nor the (3) Convention for the suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, nor the (4) Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management, nor the (5) Convention on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Why?

3rd paragraph (con’t): “a pump stopped working, this was deemed a normal matter which was dealt with”. In fact, the pump was severely damaged and the system was compromised, necessitating the removal of fuel… and initiating yet another in a long line of delays.

4th paragraph: Given that Iran is refusing to join so many safety and anti-terrorism conventions, you accuse the U.S. of “violating international law”? Really? Moreover, you suggest the Iranians are “operat[ing] under IAEA safeguards”. Perhaps you’re not aware of their non-compliance? Moreover, the safeguards do not carry the same force as an international convention. Why are IAEA missions to Iran so controlled, and limited… and effectively useless? Perhaps you didn’t follow the news regarding the last IAEA visit? Again, what are the Iranians hiding if they claim to be so “peaceful” and squeaky clean?

5th paragraph: You missed the “fungible” point. “No proliferation threat whatsoever”? Would you please back up your generalizations about the fuel with verifiable references? Also: “800,000 Iranian cancer patients must therefore die…” Please provide a verifiable reference for this number. Note: it took me 2 minutes to find that the number of total cancer sufferers in Iran is ~82,000 (given the incidence rate of ~105 per 100k population), i.e., ten times less the number you provide, and not all those are subject to radiation therapy, and not all are dying.

6th paragraph: This is a deflection. No one is denying Iran’s alleged intention to develop peaceful nuclear power as part of an (again, alleged) energy diversity program. It’s their subterfuge, refusals to cooperate, dealings with nefarious regimes, and concealment of what is alleged to be a “peaceful and open nuclear energy program” that is the issue.

What is your real agenda, Hass?

March 15, 2012 at 00:16

This is political propaganda against Iran dressed up as concern about Bushehr’s safety. First of all, it isn’t just the Russians who say that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program — our own intelligence agencies, and the IAEA, say so too (In 2009, in response to claims that the IAEA was “censoring” its reports in favor of Iran, the IAEA issued a press release stating that it had no evidence of any nuclear weapons program in Iran, “now or ever” in existence.)

The Bushehr reactor is a second-generation Soviet reactor of the VVER type, not an RBMK like the one that exploded at Chernobyl. The RBMK has a singular design defect, namely, that at certain power levels, if the reactor suffers a loss of cooling water, its reactivity can increase rather than decrease. In the boiling water and pressurized water reactors used exclusively in the United States and western Europe, because the chain reaction depends on the presence of water, which acts as a so-called “moderator,” if there is a loss of water, the reactor automatically shuts down.

While Iran has not signed the most recent safety convention, the reactor in Iran still operates under IAEA safeguards, and the IAEA has expressed no fears about its safety or operations. While it is certainly true that at testing, a pump stopped working, this was deemed a normal matter which was dealt with.

It is unfortunate that the US has interferred with Iran’s nuclear rights as recognized by the NPT and prevented IRan from completing the reactor with the continued assistance of Western companies, even though this is a totally civilian reactor that operates under IAEA safeguards, but that’s not Iran’s fault. It is the US’s fault for violating international law and the NPT.

The fuel rods that may be provided for the Tehran Research Reactor are not “fungible”. In fact had the US not interferred with Iran’s attempts to acquire these fuel rods — for a totally civilian and IAEA monitored reactor that is far to small to be used to make nukes and which poses no proliferation threat whatsoever — then Iran would not have been forced to make the 20% enriched uranium in the first place, and Ahmadinejad has repeatedly offered to cease 20% enrichment as soon as Iran can simply buy the necessary fuel. But the US says no, so those 800,000 Iranian cancer patients must therefore die since Iran can’t buy the fuel and isn’t supposed to make it itself.

And FYI the innuendo that “oil rich” Iran doesn’t really need nuclear power runs contrary to what the US said when it encouraged Iran to go nuclear in the first place. In fact, Iran’s requirements to diversify its energy resources are well recognized. Even a British Parliamentary inquiry on the subject recognized that IRan has a valid reason to seek nuclear power.

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