x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UAE and Saudi Arabia call on Iran to allay nuclear plant fears

Arabian Gulf countries raise safety concerns after reports that recent earthquakes have damaged the Bushehr nuclear plant.

ABU DHABI // The UAE and Saudi Arabia sought reassurances from Iran over the safety of its nuclear programme yesterday after reports that its nuclear facility may have been damaged during recent earthquakes.

The Arabian Gulf countries raised safety concerns about the Bushehr nuclear plant during a meeting of the Board of Governors of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, according to diplomats.

Gulf states have repeatedly urged Iran to take advantage of international safety mechanisms for its nuclear programme since the Bushehr facility opened in September, 2011, after decades of delays.

Numerous regional capitals sit closer to the Bushehr reactor than Tehran, and Gulf states fear that they could be the victims in any potential nuclear incident.

"[They] share the same concern because of the geographical proximity [to Bushehr]," a senior Vienna-based diplomat told Reuters.

Those fears were heightened after powerful earthquakes in April and May caused the plant to shut down. Both Iranian officials and the Russian manufacturers claimed that the facility was not damaged.

Just months since the incident, two diplomats in Vienna, said that information gathered by several countries monitoring the site indicated that one concrete section of the structures had developed cracks several metres long after quakes on April 9 and 16.

It was not clear which countries had been monitoring the site and the diplomats requested anonymity because they were disclosing restricted information.

One of the diplomats said that the section in question was not near the core, where nuclear material is contained. But intelligence could not be gathered from this section, so damaged there could not be ruled out, they said.

Iran's delegate to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, reacted to the allegations, saying: "I know nothing about Bushehr."

The most powerful of the April earthquakes was a magnitude 7.7, and Iran has said the reactor can withstand a magnitude 8 quake.

Iran's reaction to the earthquakes did not reassure countries in the region. Just hours after the April 9 earthquake, Tehran promised to build further reactors at the Bushehr site.

As part of discussions in Vienna this week, Arabian Gulf states again urged Iran to join the Convention on Nuclear Safety, negotiated in 1978 after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

Iran is the only country in the world that does not belong to the convention and operates a nuclear reactor.

Under that agreement, Iran would voluntarily submit information about its adherence to international safety protocols for a peer review among the other 75 signatory nations, which include the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Mr Soltanieh said that Russian contractors responsible for the site were monitoring safety there.

"We have expected them to apply the highest safety standards in this reactor and therefore it is their responsibility," he told reporters late on Wednesday.

Also during the week-long meeting, the UAE signed an Integrated Work Plan with the IAEA aimed at advancing work on its nuclear energy programme through 2017. Specific areas for cooperation include on national nuclear capability, nuclear power infrastructure, radiation safety and environment protection, emergency response, as well as radioactive waste management.

"The Integrated Work Plan is an important document which sets the framework of the UAE s work with all departments of the Agency to the advancement of its national nuclear power programme in the next five years," UAE ambassador to the IAEA, Hamad Al Kaabi, said.

 

edickinson@thenational.ae

 

*With additional reporting from Reuters and the Associated Press