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Safety of the Nuclear Facilities of Iran: A Forgotten Dimension

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law

Arak heavy water installation
Heavy water installation in Arak, Iran

The political and security dimensions of the Iranian nuclear case have been so hot that one of the most important aspects of this program is constantly ignored by the people of Iran, other countries and even the IAEA. This dimension is the safety dimension of the Iranian declared and undeclared nuclear facilities. Here are some of the general questions that come to mind:

How safe are the nuclear facilities in the sites that are known and unknown to the public?

What is the radiation level of the nuclear materials at these facilities?

What kinds of radiations are emitted from these facilities?

What is done with the nuclear wastes at these sites, are they kept in the site, or they transferred to somewhere else? How is the transfer done?

What are the procedures for the sea, air and road transportation of the hazardous materials related to the construction and fuel cycle of the nuclear facilities?

What accidents have already occurred at these facilities and what were their consequences inside and outside of the facilities?

What are the safety standards of the existing instruments in these facilities?

What plans are in place for emergency situations like melt down of the reactors due to malfunction of its main parts, natural incidents, or similar events?

Which organizations are ready for tackling the accidents such as “specialized fires” at these facilities?

How well are these facilities able to withstand an earthquake especially given that some of them may be in areas on the earthquake belt?

How do these disclosed and undisclosed nuclear facilities impact the region where they are located in terms of the environment and ecology?

What are standards and the actual situation of the storage facilities for the nuclear materials?

What are the chances of these facilities against terrorism, theft, and organized crime activities?

What are the software and hardware safety levels of the nuclear facilities?

What are the applicable safety laws and regulations at the nuclear facilities and who is in charge of implementation and verifying implementation of those laws?

What are the safety and environmental consequences of an attack against the presently declared nuclear sites in Iran?

As an example, it is a well-known fact that the Amirabad Area in the northwest of Tehran is seriously under the radiations of the Nuclear Reactor of Tehran University in the same area. (When the concerned reactor was established, Amirabad was in the suburbs of Tehran but at the moment it is in the middle of the city. Most probably, many other areas around Amirabad get the same radiations in various levels). The Iranian officials never talk about the dangers of these radiations.

In the past, sometimes in the scientific contexts, they have claimed that the level of radiation from the Amirabad Nuclear Reactor is one that poses no danger to the public. However, they may change their views about the level of the radiation that is OK for the people. The people of Iran, especially the people living in Tehran are well aware of the regime’s irresponsibility and lack of consideration when it comes to the level of radiation that is harmful for the inhabitants of the concerned areas.

As far as I know the radiation from the nuclear facilities of Amirabad nuclear reactor (which is a very old reactor and has never been fully maintained. Perhaps it is the time to close it and use a better technology as compared to this forty year technology) has been the subject of a couple of studies in Iran and their results have never been made public out of fear of creating chaos. In fact, if the safety problems of Iran’s nuclear facilities and how the Iranian government has approached (or failed to correctly address) these dangerous problems were exposed the people’s reaction to this issue may cause the nuclear case of Iran to take a different turn from the inside without the need for foreign involvement.

According to the report of the Global Security Organization: “Since 1968, the Tehran Nuclear Research Center [located in suburban Amirabad] has included a research reactor with a nominal capacity of 5 megawatts provided by the United States under. The reactor was due to be upgraded and replaced with Argentine’s assistance in the late 1980s... there are unconfirmed reports that this facility can produce plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.... Iran, acknowledged the receipt in 1991 of natural uranium, which had not been reported previously to the Agency [IAEA].... which was now being stored at the previously undeclared Jaber Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Laboratories (JHL) located at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center.” (1)

However, the research nuclear reactor of Tehran University, which is based on an American design, is less dangerous than the Chernobyl type nuclear reactors exported by the Russians. The Chernobyl accident showed the disaster that a flawed design of the Russian reactors could create. According to the report of the CRS: “The Chernobyl accident was by far the worst nuclear power plant accident to have occurred anywhere in the world. At least 31 persons died quickly from acute radiation exposure or other injuries, and between 5,000 and 45,000 fatal cancers may result over the next 40 years from radiation released during the accident. Those cancers would represent an increase in the cancer rate of about half a percent among the 75 million people in the western part of the former Soviet Union and a smaller increase in non-Soviet Europe, with a higher increase possible in the contaminated region around the planet.

The 10-year anniversary of the Chernobyl accident prompted renewed interest in the disaster's long-term consequences. According to a November 1995 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the primary observable health consequence of the accident has been a dramatic increase in childhood thyroid cancer. About 1,000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer have been reported in certain regions surrounding the destroyed reactor -- a rate that is as much as a hundred times the pre-accident level, according to OECD. The death rate for accident cleanup workers has also risen measurably, the organization reported. Other recent studies have found increased genetic mutations among children born in contaminated regions.

Environmental contamination from the accident was widespread. The OECD report estimated that about 50,000 square miles of land in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia were substantially contaminated with radioactive cesium. Significant levels of radioactive strontium, plutonium, and other isotopes were also deposited. Although radiation levels have declined during the past decade, land-use restrictions in the most contaminated areas may remain indefinitely, according to OECD.” (2)

It is noteworthy that the effects of the Chernobyl accidents were detected in the cities of Iran in the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, especially in Ramsar. Due to the good relations of the existing Islamic regime of Iran with the Russians, the real extent of these effects was never revealed. After all the Russians are polluting the Caspian Sea with so much radioactive waste that as compared with them this is nothing. The former Soviet states, especially Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, have been the storage places for the Russian nuclear wastes which is stored in sub-standard conditions; in the past, these materials have polluted and contaminated the waters of the Caspian Sea as a result of nuclear waste leaked from the storages and this is still a source of environmental and safety danger for the Caspian Sea.

According to NIT Nuclear Trafficking Database: “The main radioactive waste storage facility in Azerbaijan is the Izotop Industrial Complex, located 30km from Baku. Izotop was constructed in the 1950s and holds 510 tanks of radioactive waste in 10 storage tanks designed to hold only low-level radioactive waste. However, as of March 2000, nine of the 10 tanks were full and, in many cases, the level of radiation is above 1,000 roentgens. Data collected before 1988 suggest that approximately 350 organizations have a total of 950 radiation sources in their possession. These organizations include military facilities, research institutes, production plants and health services-related enterprises.

Spent radioactive sources from these organizations never reached the Izotop storage facility. Instead they are spread throughout the Baku region. Out of 157 radioactive contamination sites discovered in 1988 as a result of a special inspection in the Baku region, only 31 had been cleaned as of early 1996. Many of these radioactive sources were left behind by the chemical weapons divisions stationed in Baku, Lenkoran, Gyandzha and Nakhichevan during the Soviet period.” (3)

The handling of the nuclear materials in the laboratorial level I (as is the case with many hazardous materials including chemical and microbiological elements) is one thing, and handling them in the industrial or mass level is quite a different issue. The main difference in these two levels is the issue of safety. The handling of the nuclear materials, buildings, personnel, wastes, transportation and so on is subject to many complicated procedures. I doubt that many of the sites that have been operating in the concealed location or even the known location would have the necessary safety standards.

While it is true that as of 1993 Iran is a member of the United Nations Convention on the Control of Trans boundary Movement of the Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Bazel Convention) (the Bazel Convention was put in force in 1992) it is not clear at all that the detailed regulations of this convention are observed for transportation of the hazardous materials to and from the nuclear facilities of Iran, especially the undeclared ones.

I have never seen the reports of the IAEA and others in the last several years that the nuclear program of Iran has been in the limelight to address the issue of safety in the nuclear facilities of Iran. Can the IAEA say how many persons inside and outside of the facilities they have inspected have died due to mishandling of the nuclear materials? What trainings have been provided to the people for example living within a certain radius from the nuclear power plant of Bushehr, Isfahan USF facilities, the uranium extracting sites, and Natanaz facilities? Where is the waste of the nuclear facilities of Iran and under what conditions are they stored? Are the people in the concerned regions aware that they are living near dangerous materials? How come you see a warning posted near electricity poles: “danger” or “keep out” due to dangers of electrical cables or wires, but there is no similar warnings for the highly dangerous nuclear facilities?

It is interesting for the people of the concerned areas to know that if the nuclear program of Iran goes towards the military side (many experts believe that the nuclear program of Iran is definitely military and doubt that the government of the Islamic regime of Iran would be actually concerned about getting electricity for its people in the next fifty years) then the problems of safety about production and storage and use of the explosive nuclear materials get worse. I can say with certainty that a high percentage of activities in the nuclear facilities of the nuclear powers are devoted to the issue of safety of production, use and storage of the nuclear materials.

The nuclear technology is brought from the underground organizations like the Khan Network in Pakistan and Malaysia, along with the know-how taken from the Russians and Koreans. It is not clear how safe these technologies are and there is doubt that the Russians or Koreans are ready to give Iran the best technology that they may have.

The American and international sanctions against the nuclear program of Iran have created difficulties for the program and sometimes the “Iranian scientists” have found “special ways” to solve these problems in their own limited and unchecked framework. God knows to how much danger these “special solutions” will expose the people and personnel of these facilities. Who will be liable for their mistakes? What kind of protection will the people of the concerned areas have against accidents, mistakes, human errors and design flaws of these facilities?

The Bushehr reactor, according to Morteza Aminmansour is suffering from “...Substandard plant instrumentation and controls. Wiring of emergency electrical systems and reactor safety functions are inter connected in ways that allow failure of a control system to prevent operation of the safety system. Quality control, design and construction are significantly deficient by US standards.... Secrecy is the biggest enemy of nuclear safety and international isolation could result in significant risks for Iran’s nuclear industry...” (4)

The Safety of the nuclear facilities in Iran is an important matter for the people of Iran, and the neighboring countries in the case of a military attack by missiles or aerial bombardment. If the nuclear reactor of Bushehr Power Plant starts its operation and is destroyed due to military attacks, the effects of the radiations from an operational reactor will not be limited to Iran and most of the states in the Persian Gulf area may become affected. The possible effects may reach American troops in Iraq.

The government of the Islamic regime of Iran has been concealing the locations and activities of the nuclear program of Iran for many years. However, the important issue of the safety of the nuclear sites and consequences of the concealed activities without proper supervision (to detect and remove the safety problems) has been forgotten by all sides.



... Payvand News - 03/17/11 ... --

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