Iran reactor disaster warning from whistleblower

IRAN’S first nuclear power station is unsafe and will probably cause a “tragic disaster” according to a document apparently written by an Iranian whistleblower.

The Bushehr reactor is likely to cause the next nuclear catastrophe after Chernobyl and Fukushima, says the document, passed to The Times by a reputable source and attributed to a former member of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran’s legal department.

It claims Bushehr, which began operating last month after 35 years of intermittent construction, was built by “second-class engineers” who bolted together Russian and German technology from different eras; that it sits in one of the world’s most seismically active areas but could not withstand a major earthquake; and that it has “no serious training program” or a contingency plan for accidents.

The document’s authenticity cannot be confirmed, but nuclear experts see no reason to doubt it. It also echoes fears in the nuclear industry about the safety of a secretive project to which few outsiders have had access. Iran is the only country with a nuclear plant that has not joined the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which obliges signatories to observe international safety standards.

 Sami Alfaraj, head of the Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies and an adviser to the Kuwaiti government, said an accident at Bushehr would be a “total calamity for the world”, in which nuclear contamination would spew across a wide region.

He could not assess Bushehr’s safety because Iran’s co-operation with its neighbours had been “nil”.

“They say trust us, but there’s no such thing as trust us in nuclear politics. They are playing Russian roulette not just with us but with the world.”

Bushehr began in 1975 when the shah of Iran awarded the contract to Kraftwerk Union of Germany.

When the German company pulled out after the 1979 Islamic revolution the two reactors were far from finished, and they were damaged during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.

Airstrikes left the containment vessel with 1700 holes, letting in hundreds of tonnes of rainwater.

The regime revived the project in the 1990s, but with one reactor only. It wanted a prestige project to show that the Islamic Republic could match the scientific achievements of the West.

It may also have wanted cover for its nuclear weapons program – and the opportunities for personal enrichment the project gave Iran’s elite. This time, Iran used Russian engineers, who had not built a foreign reactor since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Russia’s experts wanted to start from scratch. The Iranians, having already spent more than $US1 billion, insisted they built on the German foundations.

This involved adapting a structure built for a vertical German reactor to take a horizontal Russian reactor – an unprecedented operation. Of the 80,000 pieces of German equipment, many were corroded or lacked manuals.

Moscow’s Centre for Energy and Security Studies, an independent think tank, identified a “shortage of skilled Russian engineering and construction specialists with suitable experience”. It spoke of “frequent problems with quality and deadlines” as “every (Russian) subcontractor tried to milk the Bushehr project for all it’s worth”. In February a 30-year-old German cooling pump broke, sending metal debris into the system.

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