Monday, May 9, 2011

Iran turns on Bushehr, quake hits

On Sunday, Iran's first-ever nuclear power plant near the gulfside city of Bushehr began fuel consumption for the first time since construction began in 1975. The Bushehr plant was started in 1975 by German contractors, but construction was brought to a halt after Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979. In 1995, the Russia began to oversee resumed construction of the plant.

The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant is located at the junction of three tectonic plates along the Persian Gulf, 11 miles outheast of the city of Bushehr. On Monday morning, 02:47 local time, less than a day after the plant became active, a 4.8 earthquake hit the city of Reig in the Bushehr province. See map below for just how close the earthquake (A) was to the power plant (B):

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Iran boasts that the plant is quake-proof and will not experience a situation similar to that of the Daichi plant in Fukushima, Japan. Yet only three days ago, before the plant began to operate, the French ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Florence Mangin, expressed concern regarding the Bushehr plant in the context of global nuclear security. According to Mangin, Iran is unwilling to adhere to key conventions regarding nuclear activities.

On Sunday, a cooling pump shattered at the Bushehr plant, forcing a shutdown during its initial start-up phase. According to Mark Hibbs, an expert on Iranian nuclear issues at the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, the pump failure “raises questions about the decisions the Russians made to move forward with emergency coolant system that’s 30 years old."

According to Bloomberg, experts' safety concerns hinge on the plant's hybrid design, Iran's reluctance to join international safety monitoring programs, and the unknown reliability of some of the original components. According to Bill Horak, chariman of the nuclear cience and technology department at Brookhaven National Library in New York, Russians used old parts supplied by the Germans in the 1970's in order to cut costs on the plant's construction.

Countries concerned in particular about the plant's safety include Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who would be affected within hours of a potential radiation leak at Bushehr, according to the Kuwait Center for Strategic studies. Long-term contamination in the Gulf could prove fatal, as gulf states rely on desalinated freshwater for their water needs. In the present situation, surrounding countries are forced to count on shaky Iranian promises and Russian certification.

According to Moscow Defense Brief, the US viewed Russia's involvement in Bushehr as indirect support for the Iranian nuclear arms program, and until 2005 Washington exerted significant pressure on Russia to stop the project and urged other countries to ban their companies from taking part. Yet in 2005, after Moscow and Tehran signed a deal under which spent fuel would be returned to Russia, the US lifted its opposition. Under the arrangement, Russia provides the nuclear fuel from the plant and Russian experts will run the plant for several years.

An official launch ceremony for the plant was held in August of last year. After the launch ceremony, the former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence--the organization now "interrogating" bin Laden's widows--celebrated the launch, declaring: "Iran's nuclear gains benefit Muslims".

In the week leading up to the launch ceremony, US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton warned that Israel only has days to strike the plant, as an attack on the plant after fuel has been delivered would trigger widespread radiation.

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