Earthquake-prone Iran moves nuclear enriching facilities underground


Following its discovery by US intelligence officers, Tehran has acknowledged the existence of the underground bunker at Fordow, a shelter designed to see uranium enrichment from current claims of 20 percent to the 90 percent purity required of a nuclear weapon.

The bunker is designed to withstand air and missile strikes so the mere acknowledgement of its existence does not necessarily threaten it, which is why Iran has acknowledged it publicly. Nevertheless, some experts claim that up to 90 percent of Iran is covered by fault lines, a safety risk more pronounced after the devastation at Fukushima earlier this year.

However, Iran has claimed that it is not enriching the material for nuclear weapons but medical research instead. In 2005, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa declaring nuclear weapons haram (forbidden), claiming Iran did not and would never acquire them.

While Iran has been nominally compliant with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the two have historically faced difficulties seeing eye to eye on what “compliant” exactly means. Early this week in Vienna, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, issuing a statement of increased cooperation to clear up any ‘misunderstandings’ the two may have of each other.

In Washington DC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to discuss inviting Iran back to negotiations and discussions regarding their nuclear program, amongst others.

The Russians proposed a gradual incentive-based program, essentially giving a small concession for each step Iran takes to incorporating itself into the global fold. Ms Clinton agreed to such a “dual track of pressure and engagement” though the details have yet to be determined.

Recently released Wikileaks cables from 2006 reveal that Pakistan pressured Iran not to pursue nuclear weapons. Regionally, both Pakistan and India possess nuclear weapons while Israel is suspected to either possess or be pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities.

In February, Iran’s only nuclear power plant, at Bushehr was shut down after a cooling pump failure sparked safety concerns only months after its initial opening in August 2010.

The German-Russian hybrid plant was constructed of parts up to 30 years old and was run by inexperienced operators, stirring up even more fears in the world and the region, especially the nations downwind of the plant, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

After a visit in 2010, and the only visit allowed by Iranian officials, the IAEA warned the plant was understaffed in addition to current staff being undertrained and underfunded.

The plant restarted after the cooling pump delay in May and is currently operational.

To further exacerbate safety concerns, Bushehr sits on a fault line of not two but three tectonic plates. Each power plant is designed, or should be, with geographical realities and risks in mind.

In 2002, the area suffered a 4.2 magnitude earthquake.

The following year, in December 2003, an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale killed over 30,000 people in Bam, a southeastern city in Iran which lies along the same fault lines as Bushehr.

If Iran truly does want nuclear capabilities for power and medical research, it should enlist the advice of the IAEA and experienced professionals from countries such as South Korea or Japan to ensure all safety regulations are met and employees are fully capable of such demanding work.

The fact that, instead, Iran is continuing to pursue nuclear technology through back door methods will continue to set off safety and security alarm bells in the region and beyond.

(Mary E. Stonaker is an independent scholar, most recently with the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. She can be reached at [email protected])