Olivier Guitta is the Director of Research at the Henry Jackson Society. Rosalyn Manuh assisted in research.
While the international community has been focusing on a potential Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, another much larger issue looms large that should be tackled very urgently. Nobody, except for a few concerned neighbors in the Gulf, is really looking at the possible implications of a potential earthquake in Bushehr, where Iran’s oldest and main nuclear plant is located.
Bushehr, a city of about 200,000, in south-east Iran, sits in one of the most active seismic regions in the world, at the intersection of three tectonic plates. Building a nuclear plant in this area should have been a no-no, but construction started in 1975 with the help of Germany. It was stopped in 1979, right before the Revolution that unseated the Shah. It was resumed in 1996, with Russia then leading the project that took over 15 years to complete because of the very difficult technical issues of merging German and Russian technology.
Russia supplied the fuel for the reactor and the plant has been operational since July 2013. The safety concerns of the plant are numerous: it is built with a 40-year-old design that has shown its limitation; the emergency coolant system is also 30 years old; it is running on two different technologies; according to the IAEA, the staff is not properly train to face any kind of accident and, in February 2011, a broken water pump caused small metallic pieces to infiltrate the reactor cooling system, forcing the unloading of the fuel rods.
When you couple all this with the fact that Iran is the only nuclear-operating country that has not signed any of the major international safety conventions because it could infringe its rights and allow monitoring that might bother Tehran, one should be very worried about a possible Fukushima-style accident. In May 2011, that was the conclusion of an Iranian scientific report, leaked at the time.
Not only is the plant one of the most unsafe in the world, but it is situated in a zone that has experienced several deadly and very intense earthquakes. In April 2013, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake actually hit Bushehr; fortunately, the plant was not online at the time, but let’s imagine for a second what a disaster could look like now that Bushehr is operational. Any major Chernobyl-like accident will cause the immediate death of thousands, and may cause up to hundreds of thousands more down the road due to cancer-related deaths. What is striking is that most of the studies looking at the potential risks of Bushehr are solely focusing on a potential Israeli strike.
The Gulf countries are even more concerned than Iran itself about a potential nuclear accident because of the distance between Bushehr and their main cities. For example, Kuwait City is just 175 miles away; Dammam (the capital of the main oil-rich area in Saudi Arabia,) 178 miles; Manama (Bahrein), 187 miles; Doha, 254 miles; Dubai, 373 miles and Abu Dhabi 378 miles – while Tehran is 466 miles away. On top of this, the speed and the direction of the winds, north-westerly, would actually push the potential radioactive leak towards the neighboring countries aforementioned and the Strait of Hormuz. Furthermore, Iran’s major population centers would be much less affected than its neighbors because the Zagros Mountains, a large mountain range about 550 miles long and 150 miles wide, mostly located in Iran, would act as a shield.
So any accident at Bushehr would have far more repercussions on Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar than Iran itself. First, the number of direct victims could be in the thousands, with potentially hundreds of thousands more dying from subsequent cancer. Second, the Gulf inhabitants more at risk from radiation will have to move beyond a 500 kilometer line in order to be safe. Third, these countries have a major lack of water resources and rely mostly on sea water. And since radioactive contamination can be discharged to the ground and travel with underground water, polluting soils and drinking water, one can imagine the catastrophic environmental and economic impact of such an accident.
Therefore, the International Atomic Energy Authority recommended that the Gulf put in place dedicated initiatives on radioactive pollution, in light of the fact that Bushehr is sitting on seismic lines and is so close to the Gulf.
Because of its extensive military presence in the Gulf, the United States will be very deeply affected by such an accident. Indeed, the US not only its has Central Command forward base based in Qatar, the largest facility outside the U.S, but also naval support activity in Bahrein, the Camp Patriot naval base in Kuwait and the Al Dhafra air base in the UAE; a total of about 21,500 U.S. soldiers are stationed in the region.
The most damaging event would be radioactive leaks in the Strait of Hormuz that would remove about a quarter of the world’s oil from the market straight away, and therefore create an oil shock that would in all likelihood surpass the 1973 one. Indeed, Hormuz is the only waterway leading out of the Gulf; it is 180 kilometers long and, at its narrowest point, 45 kilometers wide. All tankers carrying oil have to pass through it to deliver or collect oil from the neighboring ports. While numerous studies have been conducted on how Iran could block the Strait, no serious research has been conducted on how long the Strait would be unusable after a nuclear accident. While the energy issue is huge, one should not forget about how this would also affect directly trade in the region, and push the world’s economy in a very large recession.
The Gulf expert Aimen Dean has repeatedly warned about the dangers of a potential accident, especially in terms of water security. The Gulf Cooperation Council has now heard the message and has approached international officials to inspect the plant for potential radioactive leaks. The GCC should actively lobby the main economic powers to make the case that to avoid a nuclear accident in Bushehr that would paralyze the world economy is in everyone’s national interest. Maybe that is something that the P5+1 should have demanded to be included in its agreement with Iran.