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Iran must make nuclear safety a top priority

This month's earthquakes add new urgency to GCC concerns about the safety of Iran's nuclear power reactor at Bushehr, which is closer to the UAE than to Tehran.

The words "earthquake" and "nuclear" are uneasy neighbours in any sentence. And "uneasy neighbours" is also a fine description, especially this week, of the GCC countries downwind of Iran's nuclear plant at Bushehr. Iran, the only state with a power reactor that has not signed the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety, urgently needs to reassure the region and the world about the plant. Bushehr must be safe, and be seen to be safe.

The April 9 earthquake near the plant killed at least 37 people, measured 6.3 on the Richter scale and was centred just 96 kilometres from the reactor. Yesterday's 7.8-magnitude quake in Balochistan, on Iran's border with Pakistan, was the region's most powerful tremor in nearly four decades. But Bushehr is closer to Abu Dhabi than it is to Tehran, so naturally last week's quake, felt around the Gulf though less strongly than the more recent one, was enough to renew and increase the anxiety GCC leaders and populations feel about Iran's reactor.

This week the GCC called on the International Atomic Energy Agency to send experts to inspect the plant for damage. The GCC also proposed a new radiation-monitoring centre for the region.

Reactor safety should not be controversial. After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe, everyone can see that nuclear power demands the greatest prudence in monitoring, maintenance and security. Indeed it was Chernobyl that led to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which helps signatories by providing peer review, encouraging best practices, and maintaining transparency on safety.

It should be evident that vigilance against a reactor disaster must outweigh any political calculation. If ever there was a reason for every country to put cooperation ahead of narrow national interest, this is that reason.

Amid the international outcry over fears that Iran is using its nuclear energy programme to mask military ambition, the more prosaic issue of safety has won little attention outside the region. Yet the GCC's concerns are not new, nor rooted in politics. Bushehr, which started construction in 1975, is a unique amalgam of German, Russian and Iranian technology. After many technical problems, Bushehr began contributing power to the national grid last year. But in October 2012, despite assuring the public that routine maintenance had gone as planned, the government later admitted Bushehr was shut down after stray bolts were found beneath the fuel cells. The next month, officials conceded a leak had occurred at a uranium conversion facility.

Iran says it is moving towards signing the 1994 Convention, but still has not done so. Signing on, taking part and otherwise reassuring the world about safety, would help reduce Iran's political isolation. More importantly, it would be the right thing to do.

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