“Nuclear meltdown!”, “Asia faces atomic radiation!” These are some of the headlines that have dominated international news in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami disasters in Japan.
Last week’s earthquake was not the first in Japan, a country that experiences more than 8000 tremors each year. So used is Japan to earthquake that preparing for it constitutes part of the school curriculum from the age of 12. It was only eight years ago when a major earthquake struck the centre of the main archipelago, leaving behind devastation that was not fully cleared until last year.
So, why did last week’s earthquake, the strongest recorded so far, attract such unprecedented attention?
The answer is one word: nuclear.
The latest earthquake, which also triggered a tsunami, affected several nuclear power plants in the northeast of the country.
The damage done to at least three atomic reactors in the Fukushima power plant in Dai-ichi has triggered explosions that, in turn, released radiations of uncertain intensity.
That the Japanese should be frightened of nuclear explosions is no surprise. More interesting is the fear that news from Japan has provoked in the hearts of people thousands of miles away. The German news agency reports of people rushing to pharmacies to buy tablets supposed to counter atomic radiation.
Part of the trepidation that the nuclear technology inspires is due to the irrational fear inspired by the unknown. The truth is that we do not fully master the nuclear genie. And, once out of the bottle, that genie could do things that we are not yet capable of undoing. Sixty-six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear radiation is still claiming dozens of Japanese lives each year.
The nuclear genie fascinates and terrorises us at the same time.
For many, the most effective reaction to the unknown is to kill it. This is why millions of people from all nationalities devote their lives to campaigning against the nuclear industry.
Today, they are likely to ask that if even an advanced nation like Japan is incapable of ensuring the safety of the nuclear industry, what should one expected when it falls in the hands of less developed countries?
One example is the ill-omened nuclear power plant that Iran has been trying to set up in the Bushehr Peninsula since 1973.
Its story is too well known to need being retold.
What matters now is that the Bushehr nuclear power plant, like the Japanese ones, is located on an active earthquake belt and thus vulnerable to the same dangers.
The site chosen for the plant in 1973 is the village Hellieh that had been destroyed by an earthquake a decade earlier. The German company, Siemens, which designed the plant and supervised its construction until 1979, claimed that the reactors were protected against earthquakes of up to 7 degrees on the Richter scale.
At that time, it was generally assumed that no earthquake of higher intensity could be envisaged in Iran, and records established since the 1950s confirmed that view.
The Japanese had made a similar assumption in the case of nuclear power plants located in Dai-chi and Daini. Last week’s earthquake, however, had an intensity of almost 9 on the Richter scale.
Thus, it would be imprudent, to say the least, to assume that the Hellieh plant would be safe against earthquakes of a higher intensity. That we have not had an earthquake of more than 7 on the Richter scale in the Bushehr Peninsula does not mean that we could be sure of never having one.
In fact, over the past 30 years, two reports from the Tehran University’s geophysics department have underlined that danger in no uncertain terms.
The Hellieh plant is even more vulnerable for other reasons.
The Japanese reactors were secured with dual casing systems with one container of stainless steel reinforced by an outer casing of concrete.
The reactors of the Iranian plant, as redesigned by the same Russian firm that built Chernobyl, have only a single casing.
The Japanese plants were built close to the world’s biggest ocean which is capable of quickly absorbing any nuclear pollution. The Iranian plant is built right on the Gulf, a shallow body of water with an average depth of no more than 90 metres. It takes an average of 16 years for the waters of the Gulf, which is more of an inland sea, to be entirely renewed.
Pollution caused by a nuclear “meltdown” on the Bushehr Peninsula could take much longer to be absorbed by nature. It could have a devastating effect on the lives of the estimated 30 million people who live close to the coastline.
No one should contest Iran’s right to develop a nuclear power industry, even though this makes no sense in economic terms.
However, the Iranian people and their neighbours, not to mention the international community as a whole, have the right and the duty to demand that the threat of a nuclear meltdown be taken into account and properly dealt with before the power is switched on.
In the wake of the disaster in Japan, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has announced that it is studying a new set of safety measures, especially in connection with earthquakes. It is also tightening the rules with regard to transparency in reporting incidents in nuclear power plants. A new system of more intrusive inspection is also under study.
To be sure, the IAEA has no legal authority to intervene in matters pertaining to national sovereignty. However, a nuclear meltdown could hardly be contained within national frontiers. The Japanese disaster, if not contained, could affect he United States, the two Koreas, Russia and China among other countries. A nuclear meltdown in the Bushehr Peninsula would affect not only Iran but all the other seven countries with coastlines on the Gulf plus Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The disaster in Japan puts the principle of caution under the limelight. It reminds us that taking unnecessary risks in pursuit of illusory grandeur is bad policy to say the least. Building nuclear power plants on earthquake zones in Iran is lie playing Russian roulette with a captive region. It was against the principle of caution under the Shah and remains so under the mullahs.