Features | Security | Central Asia

How Iran Risks Another Chernobyl

While attention has focused on Tehran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions, Russia’s lax safety standards risk creating another kind of nuclear disaster in Iran.

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.

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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.

Post-Soviet nuclear power facilities, and indeed the nuclear industry as a whole have experienced significant hardships, raising safety concerns as workers suffered economically. In 1992, Russia and Iran signed a $800 million contract for the construction of the first Bushehr unit already restarted by the Russians – a bargain-basement deal for the Iranians – with a total estimated package of $3 billion to $4 billion for future units. This was MinAtom’s first foreign nuclear deal since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and represented a significant portion of Russia’s 1998 $80 billion state budget.

But further pressure was applied on Russia’s nuclear industry by a 1997 agreement between the United States and Ukraine to qualify U.S. fuel in Russian-designed Ukrainian reactors, with the goal of diversifying Ukraine’s nuclear fuel sources – potentially threatening up to 50 percent of the Russian sole-supplier market. Indeed, almost to the day of Bushehr’s connection to the grid last September, Ukraine began testing Western nuclear fuel at its South Ukraine nuclear power plant.

But Russia’s continued involvement with Iran is about more than economics – many Russians believe international factors also reinforce Moscow’s cooperation with Iran. For example, the completion of Bushehr is seen as part of a response to NATO enlargement. Complicating the political situation further, U.S. relations with Russia promise to be contentious under Vladimir Putin (a man who has described the United States as a “parasite” and “hooligan”).

The problem is that while much attention has been focused on Iran’s other activities, to suggest that Bushehr itself isn’t a potential source of weapons materials is at best only obliquely correct. Even if taken in isolation, Bushehr poses a significant proliferation risk in three ways: (1) it involves a large number of Iranian experts – opening the door for the transfer knowledge to rogue countries, (2) it’s much more difficult to conceal weapons development activities if Bushehr is cancelled, (3) there is momentum from a small nuclear weapons research program in the 1970s under the Shah – something repeatedly made clear by U.S. officials.

Moreover, based on U.S. intelligence reports and Iran’s continued efforts to procure technologies unnecessary for power production (uranium enrichment technologies like centrifuges, as well as special chemicals from China and tritium from Russia, heavy water used in plutonium-production reactors, ballistic missile technologies from Turkey and North Korea), the weapons proliferation threat seems very real. In addition, fairly recent reports implicate Belarus in assisting Iran to skirt U.N. non-proliferation sanctions by acting as a middleman for securing access to Russian technology. This is no surprise, given the Russian Federation’s clearly articulated policy to treat Iran as a valued partner (if not ally), something that may undermine Russian officials’ willingness to implement effectively export controls on sensitive technology to Iran.

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As Heritage Foundation analyst Ariel Cohen notes:

“…Russia’s commercial interests in Iran range from billions in arms sales to transfers of nuclear and space technology to lucrative oil and gas contracts for state-controlled Russian companies. The Kremlin does not see Iran as a threat, but as a partner and an ad hoc ally to challenge U.S. power through the expansion of Russia’s regional and international influence. While the Iranian agenda is clearly separate from that of Russia, the Kremlin uses Iran as geopolitical battering ram against the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf region and the Middle East. Not only is Russian support for Iran’s nuclear program and arms sales good business from the Kremlin’s perspective, but it advances a geopolitical agenda that is at least 20 years old.”

Economically, it makes more sense for the Iranians to purchase fuel (including expertise, transport, processing, and disposal costs) from abroad. Iran has indigenous uranium, but it is of limited and poor quality. Moreover, fuel production is a very demanding industrial undertaking – representing a huge initial economic drain on any country.

Experts close to the centrifuge issue may disagree over when Iran will produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material, but most agree the potential is there and increasing. The current best estimates categorize as “insufficient” the installed enrichment capacities of Iran’s centrifuges and its supply of uranium to support Bushehr with adequate nuclear fuel. However, that installed enrichment capacity is enough to eventually produce material for perhaps a few nuclear weapons. Moreover, the Iranians are constructing a 40 MWt heavy water-moderated research reactor near the western city of Arak that wouldn’t require enriched uranium to operate, and which is better suited to producing weapons-grade plutonium. This is in addition to a heavy water production plant at the site, in operation since 2006.

For all these reasons, while Bushehr is indeed a problem (as is the IAEA-supervised Natanz enrichment facility), it is some clandestine facility – like the underground Fordow facility exposed in September 2009 – that is of greater concern because such a facility could relatively easily support the design and construction of a nuclear weapon.

The reality is that it makes perfect sense for a country bent on destroying Israel to develop weapons clandestinely and at great expense in remote underground locations – shielded from remote-sensing technologies and air strikes. On mere economic grounds, in contrast, it makes no sense at all to go to such great lengths. Surely, Iranian economic interests would be best served entering into commercial and medical isotope-based nuclear fuel agreements with Russia (which it did in 2005, but only concerning fuel destined for Bushehr), while easing political tensions with the West by abandoning its enrichment program.

One would think.

Regardless, there’s another IAEA failure to consider: despite repeated urgings, Iran hasn’t joined the 1996 Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) – a treaty that engages countries to help improve safeguards in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Iran is the only country operating a nuclear power plant that hasn’t signed onto the treaty. Neither has Iran joined the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material nor the Convention for the suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, nor the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

Is it too provocative to ask why Russia hasn’t used its friendly relations with Iran to push it to join these international nuclear safety conventions? Certainly, Russia can be expected to defend its economic interests formidably if Bushehr is attacked, as reflected in a thinly-veiled threat from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the eve of the release of November’s IEAE report, warning that a pre-emptive military strike on Iran by Israel would be a “very serious mistake, fraught with unpredictable consequences.” Later, he asserted Russia “would do everything” in its power to prevent an attack on Iran. Lavrov even descended into some purple prose by asserting an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities “would pour oil on the still smoldering fire of sectarian confrontation, which would lead to a chain reaction.”

Meanwhile, as Russia blusters, and despite it having no experience in operating nuclear reactors, Iran is insisting on taking over management of the reactor from Russia – just a year after it goes online. As this chilling assessment from Ali Vaez notes:

“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.

“And 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…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 sigh for the people of Bushehr and their neighbors in other Persian Gulf countries.”

Such observations are all the more troubling considering the safety weaknesses in Russia’s foreign commercial nuclear aspirations. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the state nuclear corporation RosAtom, recently said that Russia will extend the operating lifetimes of its own nuclear reactors by up to 15 years. The extension covers the most risky first-generation VVER-440s and 11 operating Chernobyl-type units, believed by most Western experts to be among the world’s most dangerous due to fundamental design shortcomings. By the beginning of 2011, 15 of Russia’s 32 reactors had reached their 30-yr design lifetime, despite years of Western efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars spent trying to shut down safety-deficient Soviet-designed nuclear reactors. Kiriyenko’s announcement was blessed by Russia’s nuclear oversight body Rostekhnadzor. Yet nuclear reactor operating lifetimes can’t be extended by diktat: a rigorous safety case must be made for each unit—including environmental impact assessments. The IAEA’s non-response was as deafening as it was cowardly, noting the decision “rests with Russia’s nuclear authorities” and exposing in the process Russia’s influence over the organization.

Given the IAEA’s failure to stop Iran’s centrifuge enrichment program, one shouldn’t be surprised. What is surprising is the mainstream media’s apparent “report not investigate” attitude (or inability to put the pieces of the puzzle together to create a coherent picture) and Washington’s easing of its stance with respect to the Bushehr reactor – connected to the grid for the first time at low power on September 3, 2011. In contrast to the earlier U.S. position, comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 delinked the operation of Bushehr from centrifuge and missile delivery-system concerns. This is unfortunate and unjustified.

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Worse – and arguably even reckless – others have suggested the United States provide Iran with 50 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium without any conditions for the production of medical isotopes at its small Tehran-based research reactor to placate the regime’s anti-American and anti-Israeli stance – as if the terms “leverage” or “fungible” mean nothing to a regime whose long history of brutal human rights violations alone betray Iran’s real intentions. Is this not akin to sharpening the ax of one’s executioner?

So, is an international community wearied by the serious economic problems facing most countries sliding into complacency over the Iranian-Russian nuclear complex? There are, in short, a dozen interlocking points to consider:

(1) Iran has continued its economically unjustified enrichment of uranium despite U.N. resolutions calling for immediate cessation;

(2) Clear evidence notwithstanding, Iran isn’t cooperating and continues to deny its structured military-related nuclear development activities, including heavy water research,  nuclear payload integration into missiles, fast detonator development, hydrodynamics modeling experiments, neutron initiator and firing system development;

(3) The delay-plagued completion of Bushehr and an Iranian whistleblower’s worries over Bushehr’s construction by “second-class engineers” for a project that supports “no serious training program” for staff nor an accident contingency plan;

(4) Iran’s insistence on taking over management of Bushehr a year after it went online last September, despite having effectively no nuclear power operations experience and despite a 2010 IAEA report characterizing Bushehr as “understaffed”;

(5) Iran pushed for a premature start of the facility, resulting in the breakdown of a 30-year-old German-supplied emergency cooling pump in February 2011 that spewed debris into the system and forced the temporary removal of fuel from the core;

(6) Likely under pressure from the Russians to shield construction and design weaknesses from legitimate safety concerns, Iran has refused to join the Convention on Nuclear Safety;

(7) Russia’s foreign nuclear construction difficulties imply more economic weight is being placed upon completed foreign projects like Bushehr;

(8) Russia faces its own domestic nuclear construction difficulties;

(9) The revelations of Belarus as a likely channel for sensitive Russian technology to Iran;

(10) Russia faces a difficult geopolitical balancing act: between increasing its international economic status while defending its influence in the “near abroad” and strong opposition to NATO;

(11) Russia considers Iran a partner and de facto ally in its plans to reshape the power balance in the Middle East and dilute U.S. influence in the region;

(12) Putin’s return to the presidency suggests more strident dealings with the West – a West facing its own serious economic problems.

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These complex and manifold pressures could lead to an erosion of operational safety levels at Bushehr similar to those that precipitated Chernobyl, and any accident could potentially destabilize the region—not least by hitting the flow of the world’s petroleum through the Strait of Hormuz.

The international community can’t afford to permit such a precarious situation to evolve further. Surely, the head of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies, Sami Alfaraj, had it right: “[The Iranians] say ‘trust us’ but there’s no such thing as ‘trust us’ in nuclear politics. They are playing Russian roulette not just with us but with the world.”


Alexander Sich is an associate professor of physics at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Sich was the first American researcher to investigate the Chernobyl reactor meltdown on site. The views expressed are his own.