Iran's nuclear programme rightly raises fears of proliferation, but the more immediate worry is that a lack of technological knowhow could lead to a catastrophic accident
Tehran's breakneck nuclear drive risks self-inflicted pain
Global concerns about Iran's nuclear programme rightly focus on the proliferation threat it poses. Notwithstanding the civilian nuclear energy purpose of projects such as the Russian-built Bushehr power reactor, the evidence indicates beyond reasonable doubt that Iran also seeks a capability to produce nuclear weapons.
Iran's neighbours and, even more so, its own citizens, also have reason to fear the safety risks associated with the nuclear programme. So far, these safety concerns have been tied to Bushehr. The environmental price that Iran's Gulf neighbours would have to pay in the event of a reactor accident there has been well described by Dr Sami al Faraj, the president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.
A smaller Iranian reactor that has been in the news - the Tehran research reactor, supplied by the United States in the 1960s - also poses health and safety concerns. Iran wants to use the reactor to produce medical isotopes, but the reactor is running out of fuel, which is formed from uranium enriched to 19.75 per cent. Failed negotiations in late 2009 over a trade for replacement fuel gave Iran an excuse to produce 19.75 per cent enriched uranium on its own.
A dossier published yesterday on Iran's nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) argues that the military implications of such enrichment are significant. It puts Iran on the threshold of having weapons-usable fissile material.
In addition to the proliferation threat posed by the 20 per cent enriched uranium, Iran's justification is dubious and presents safety risks in two ways. Firstly, it is reasonable to ask if the Tehran research reactor should continue to be used at all. Almost eight years ago Iran said the reactor was nearing the safety limits for which it was designed. This safety risk is compounded by the reactor's proximity to residential areas. It was on the outskirts of the city when its construction started in 1960, but Tehran's expansion since then means the reactor is now surrounded by houses.
Secondly, Iran cannot safely produce enriched uranium fuel on its own. Even if Iran is eventually able to fabricate fuel from the 19.75 per cent enriched uranium, standard safety practices would require the fuel to be tested for an extended period of time in a reactor before it could be safely used. By the time any fuel is produced, the Tehran research reactor may not have sufficient power to allow this testing to take place. One way or another, Iran would probably have to turn to outside help to test the fuel or else use it in an unsafe way.
A research reactor under construction at Arak also poses safety as well as proliferation risks. The 40MW Arak reactor has civilian purposes, to be sure. But notably, it is similar in size and kind to reactors used by India, Israel and Pakistan to produce plutonium for weapons. The proliferation threat from Arak is at least several years away, in part because Iran has not been able to produce or to procure the large metal components such as the pressure vessel that, in order to withstand the intense heat and radiation inside the reactor, need to be forged without welds. If Iran uses inferior domestic components for the Arak reactor, this will pose a safety risk.
Potentially worse than all the above safety risks associated with current projects are the dangers posed to the environment and human health if Iran proceeds with plans to build on its own a power reactor at Darkhovin, near the head of the Gulf. This reactor is to be one-third the size of Bushehr, but it will still be much larger than the research reactors in Tehran and Arak. Iran has never built a reactor independently and yet now plans to design and build one at Darkhovin entirely on its own. Because of Iran's long record of violating IAEA safeguards and UN Security Council mandates, it is unable to contract with international partners in the construction of Darkhovin or in the supply of its components. If Iran tries to build a reactor vessel on its own, it will be in serious danger of leaking or even exploding.
Iran's refusal to provide the IAEA with advance design information for Darkhovin or any other new or redesigned nuclear facility is another reason for concern. The Darkhovin reactor was expected to become operational by 2015, but, luckily for Iran's neighbours, this schedule will not be met.
Meanwhile, with foreign assistance the United Arab Emirates is proceeding with the construction of four large nuclear reactors, with cutting-edge technology, full transparency and utmost attention to international norms on safety, security and safeguards. The contrast with Iran's nuclear programme could not be more stark. Iran could similarly benefit from international cooperation in nuclear technology - if only it would come in from the cold and give up its weapons intentions.
Mark Fitzpatrick is the director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies