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Sich: The present nuclear threat in Iran

Photo Credit: Illustration by Janet Hamlin

Alexander R. Sich, associate professor of physics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, is an expert on the Chernobyl accident and international nuclear safety. His longer piece questioning the safety of Bushehr is available at The Diplomat.

Picture it as a nuclear Matryoshka -- that collection of daintily decorated Russian wooden dolls nested within one another. Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons are made up of layers of clandestine activities and deception, engendering fear and divisions among United Nations members.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently expressed concern that Iran was within a year of developing a nuclear weapon -- underscoring Iran's enrichment capabilities as the subterranean (literally!) linchpin of such efforts. Israel -- ground-zero for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's despicable threats -- continuously reminds the world of the grave threat to its existence and the rapidly closing window of opportunity for an effective attack.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on the other hand, descended to purple prose in asserting that an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities "would pour oil on the still smoldering fire" and "lead to a chain reaction." Lurking beneath such rhetoric are economic interests that, without doubt, Russia will defend formidably if Iran is attacked.

This was reflected in Lavrov's thinly veiled threat on the eve of last November's International Atomic Energy Agency report linking Iran's nuclear energy program with the development of weapons. He asserted Russia "would do everything" in its power to prevent a pre-emptive military strike on Iran.

But, there's another layer. Concerns over an Israeli attack upon Iran's enrichment and weapons development facilities, as well as the recent transfer of U.S. naval assets to the Persian Gulf to protect petroleum transports through the Strait of Hormuz have, largely diverted attention from operational safety concerns at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, on the northeastern shore of the Persian Gulf.

Scratch Bushehr, and you find nested dysfunctionality and safety concerns that reflect Russian economic interests. They betray Russia's own domestic nuclear safety deficiencies. Those include the continued operation of 11 Chernobyl-type reactors, widely believed by Western experts to be among the world's riskiest, and Russia's inability to meet international and domestic nuclear construction commitments.

When Bushehr was first connected to Iran's power grid in September 2011, Russia -- ever eager to sell nuclear technology abroad -- pushed for a revival of talks between the West and Iran regarding the latter's uranium enrichment facilities. Bushehr and any future Russian-designed reactors would use Russian fuel, but any domestic enrichment and fabrication capacity on the part of Iran would cut into Russia's lucrative nuclear fuel contracts.

Exacerbating the issue for Russia, it may soon lose a significant portion of its nuclear fuel market to western competition: Almost to the day of Bushehr's connection to the grid, Ukraine began testing western nuclear fuel at its South Ukraine nuclear power plant, in a move ultimately aimed at weaning Ukraine from Russia's nuclear fuel monopoly.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, major elements of the post-Soviet nuclear industry have struggled to survive -- raising safety concerns at these plants, since many workers were paid subsistence wages. So it's not surprising that Russia doggedly pursued the completion of Iran's Bushehr reactor to support its own nuclear industry, including future commercial nuclear fuel contracts.

Additionally, Russia has not used its friendly relations to push Iran to join the 1996 Convention on Nuclear Safety -- a treaty that engages countries to improve safeguards in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Iran is the only country operating a nuclear power plant that has not signed onto the treaty, nor has it joined a number of other important international nuclear safety conventions (though, in the 1960s, it did play a significant role in negotiating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty).

By the beginning of last year, 15 of Russia's 32 reactors had reached their 30-year design lifetime. In September, Sergey Kiriyenko, head of Russia's nuclear corporation RosAtom, announced that operating lifetimes of all reactors would be extended up to an additional 15 years. This came with the blessing of Russia's nuclear oversight body, which is known to have suffered cuts in funding and personnel, and betrays weaknesses in Russia's nuclear power sector. Nuclear reactor operating lifetimes cannot be extended by diktat. A rigorous safety case must be made for each unit, including environmental impact assessments. The IAEA's nonresponse was as deafening as it was cowardly, noting the decision "rests with Russia's nuclear authorities."

Russia's lack of qualified experts and funding for the completion of its domestic projects is well known. These shortcomings also serve as a basis for concerns over Russia's foreign nuclear aspirations. The revelations by WikiLeaks of a severe lack of Russian construction personnel led one diplomat to characterize as "fantasy" the successful completion of Bulgaria's Belene nuclear plant by Russia's AtomStroyExport.

If a relatively benign project like the Belene plant (which is Russian-designed and equipped) appears unlikely, what does this say about the quality and safety level of the more complex Bushehr project -- a mishmash of German and Russian technologies located on the juncture of two tectonic plates?

Iran insists on taking over management of Bushehr this coming September, one year after it went online. But the country effectively has no nuclear power operations experience and a 2010 IAEA report characterized Bushehr as "understaffed." Worse, Iran pushed for a premature start of the facility, resulting in the breakdown of a German-supplied emergency cooling pump in February 2011 and spewing debris into the system, delaying the start-up of an already severely delayed project for six months more. In October, an Iranian whistle-blower characterized Bushehr as constructed by "second-class engineers" for a project supporting "no serious training program" for staff and without an accident contingency plan.

If Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility was damaged by the Stuxnet computer worm -- which was specifically targeted against monitoring and control systems in clandestinely acquired German equipment -- what does this say about Bushehr itself as a potential target for cyberattacks?

The Chernobyl accident resulted from a difficult-to-control reactor that was unstable at certain power levels, a poor safety culture that compromised diligence during a safety experiment, and external production pressures before a major Soviet holiday. If the Bushehr plant suffers a severe accident -- whether from the Iranian government's reckless push for operations, low safety levels, a severe seismic event, a cyber attack, or all of the above, as the Japanese can attest -- the Iranians may not need their Tonka Toy navy to close the Strait of Hormuz.