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Monday, May 01, 2006

The Iranian earthquake threat


This is one hell of a scary picture.

This picture shows where and when earthquakes have hit various parts of iran. At the web page it comes from, you can zoom in and see more detail.

Iranian nuclear activities are worrisome not only for their military dimension, but also because of a simple fact: Iran sits on one of the most geologically active places on the planet. Deadly earthquakes happen quite often there, and 97% of Iran has been hit by earthquakes historically.

Even if Iran's nuclear program was entirely peaceful, the idea of building nuclear plants in such a seismically unstable area is just stupid. A single Chernobyl in Iran, triggered by an earthquake, could contaminate the entire Persian Gulf and then we won't have to worry about Gulf oil - there won't be any.

A quick glance at Iran's IRNA news shows minor earthquakes hitting various parts of Iran last Friday.
And Saturday.
And Sunday.
And Monday.

Almost no one is talking about this threat besides Amir Taheri, the excellent Iranian columnist and writer. Here is one of his recent articles on the matter:

IRAN'S NUKE SITES SIT ON FAULT LINE
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News

April 5, 2006

Where will the "Next Big One" strike? This is the question that seismologists across the globe have always on their mind. The latest issue of National Geographic Magazine poses it in its cover story and tries to provide answers with the help of a map depicting earthquake prone zones.

Possibly the most active of these zones is the arc of uplands spanning from Southern Asia to the Middle East. At the centre of that arc is located the Iranian Plateau which, over the past century or so, has experienced more earthquakes than any other part of the globe. Last week's earthquake in the south-central province of Luristan is the latest reminder of that fact.

Since Iran started properly recording earthquakes in the late 1940s it has suffered at least one "big one" every decade. According to official estimates these earthquakes claimed the lives of 126,000 people, injured a further 800,000 and made 1.8 million people homeless. Seen against such a background, it is surprising the safety aspect of Iran's nuclear programme has received little attention inside and outside the country.

As far as I am aware the safety issue has not been seriously raised either at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or at the United Nations Security Council where the Iranian programme was debated last month. As for Iran's neighbours the only expression of concern has come from the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdul Rahman Al Attiyah.

The problem, however, is that while the security risks that the Iranian nuclear programme might entail cannot be conclusively demonstrated, the threat that it poses for the safety of the region is readily manifest.

Even supposing Iran's nuclear programme has no military dimensions, it would still be prudent to demand that it be put under a moratorium until the whole issue is publicly debated inside and outside the country.

There was no public enquiry on how and why the Bushehr Peninsula, one of the most dangerous areas of Iran as far as earthquake frequencies are concerned, was chosen as the location of the first nuclear power station.

The spot chosen for the nuclear power station is known as Hellieh and was once the site of half a dozen villages. It was abandoned in the 1940s when the villages were wiped off the map in a major earthquake. The place is not far from the remains of Siraf, which had been the region's most important port until it was destroyed in an earthquake in 978 AD.

An official Iranian government report presented to an international conference in Kobe, Japan, in January 2005, puts the area where the nuclear power station is located at the centre of the country's most active earthquake zone.

The safety issue becomes even more pressing when a number of other facts are considered. The first is that no proper assessment was ever made of the damage done to the half-built plant before building was resumed in the year 2000.

The second fact is that there is, as yet, no agreement on how and where to treat the waste water produced by the Hellieh plant. The initial idea was to just let it flow into the waters of the Gulf. But that could pose a major ecological threat and wipe out the region's fishing industry. It could also threaten the desalination plants used by many Gulf states to produce up to 80 per cent of the water they use.

No agreement

There is also the fact that there is, as yet, no agreement on what to do with the nuclear waste produced by the plant. The German consortium had proposed burying the waste under the great Iranian desert of Kavir Lut. But that idea had to be abandoned because the desert in question is itself on an active earthquake zone.

Both under the Shah and during the reign of the mullahs, Iranian decision-makers have been fully aware of the risks involved in building nuclear power stations. This is why they decided to locate them in sparsely populated areas. None of the 22 nuclear power plants that the Shah wanted to build was to be close to major population centres in Iran itself.

That strategy, however, did not take into account Iran's neighbours in the western coast of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. There, between 40 and 100 per cent of the total population live close to the perimeter of danger.

The Islamic republic has decided to build seven of those nuclear stations. The second will be located at Dar-Khwain, on the River Karun which flows into the Gulf via the Shatt Al Arab. The third will be built in the Jas Peninsula almost opposite the Mussandam Peninsula in the Sultanate of Oman.

The world needs to give at least as much importance to the safety aspect of the Iranian nuclear programme, which is readily manifest, than to its security aspect which the IAEA is yet to reveal in clear terms.

Building nuclear power stations, especially when designed by Russians and Chinese firms that are subject to no international scrutiny, on the world's most active earthquake zone might not be the best of ideas either for Iran or its neighbours.

While I admit to fantasizing about chances for "the mother of all work accidents", the practical upshot is that here is a topic all can agree on - from tree-hugging liberals to hawkish conservatives. Nuclear power plants in Iran pose an extreme environmental threat beyond the obvious military threat, and even the most dhimmified dove in Europe can understand this.