x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

After two earthquakes, confidence in Iran grows shaky

Even an earthquake seems like a small problem compared to the possible safety issues at Iran's Bushehr power reactor.

On Tuesday afternoon a week ago, I was sitting in my fifth-floor office in Abu Dhabi, working on my computer, when I suddenly felt dizzy. The PC screen seemed to be moving. My chair was shaking. For a moment, I thought I was going to faint. And then, after a second or so, I realised that there was an earthquake.

As tens of thousands of other UAE residents will confirm, this was a rather disturbing experience.

Our building was still standing; nothing fell off my desk. So, aware that aftershocks are generally far milder than the initial earthquake, I carried on working, though I felt rather odd for an hour or two.

It's the first time I've felt an earthquake in the UAE, though they are pretty regular. One of magnitude 6.2 had taken place the previous week. Although I'm no expert on plate tectonics or regional geology, I'm well aware that moderate earthquakes are common along the Arabian Plate and Iran's Zagros Mountains. Shifting in this region causes most of the significant earthquakes that are felt in the UAE, though smaller ones also occur along the Dibba Fault, in the Hajar Mountains.

Those quakes, often with epicentres in the Bandar Abbas area, are generally of a strength of somewhere between 6 and 6.5 on the conventional measurement scale, which has now become the standard measurement.

It's probably good that they happen fairly often, as they relieve the pressure building up far beneath the Earth's surface. Otherwise, something more dramatic might occur, with a consequently greater effect throughout the region.

That, indeed, was my initial thought last week - that the quake had probably been much larger than usual, with an epicentre near Bandar Abbas. I assumed that as large buildings in Abu Dhabi had been swaying, the impact might have been heavier in Dubai and other northern cities.

The quake was large - 7.8 on the conventional measurement scale - well over 10 times more powerful than the norm for the region. Abu Dhabi was spared major damage, as the epicentre was on the Iran-Pakistan border. Those nearer the epicentre were less fortunate; dozens were killed.

With two quakes in two weeks, it's worth taking a moment to consider just how vulnerable the UAE is to the dangers of quaking earth.

The National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology has, rightly, sought to reassure the public that the UAE does not lie in a zone prone to large earthquakes. Building codes, meanwhile, are sufficiently robust to ensure that all buildings, if properly constructed, should be able to withstand violent tremors when and if they occur. A few moments of worry or panic as a tall building sways slightly should be all that we have to face.

More disconcerting are the after-effects of any large quake that may hit the region, especially when it comes to nuclear safety. Rumours of a major quake about the hit the Gulf are nonsense, and I'm satisfied with the assurances from the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation about the internationally-designed safety standards for the Barakah power plant now under construction in Abu Dhabi's Western Region.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, which sits at the intersection of the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates, and is due to come into full operation later this year.

Bushehr was initially designed in the 1970s by a German firm but has been completed by Russia, a nation with safety standards that were called into question after the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.

Iran's failure to join the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety, which would allow for regular proper inspections, is a further concern. Not surprisingly, GCC states have recently met to discuss the potential impact of the plant being severely damaged by an earthquake.

Iranian secrecy about their nuclear power programme is a concern not just because of worries that Iran may be seeking to develop the capacity to produce a nuclear bomb, with all of the political and military implications of that, but because of the potential environmental impact on the whole region that could follow from damage caused to its nuclear plants by a massive earthquake.

That, I would argue, is much more of a threat to the UAE and to its neighbours than the good shaking we received from last week's earthquake.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture