New and disquieting discoveries about the safety levels at Iran’s nuclear facilities began spilling out after a dangerous incident closed the Bushehr nuclear reactor in mid-October for a month.
It was first revealed on Dec. 1 that “some small external parts” identified as “bolts beneath the fuel cells” were… “in the reactor vessel” of the reactor. The revelation came from a source in the office of Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Rosatom, the Russian international atomic energy commission, which supervised the reactor’s construction and its management by Russian engineers.
Fearing the reactor might explode momentarily, Russian experts were summoned from Moscow and the fuel rods were removed. According to Russian estimates, an explosion might have caused one million Iranian deaths and injured hundreds of thousands of radiation victims in Persian Gulf countries, potentially shutting down the industry which supplies one-fifth of the world’s energy consumption.
President Vladimir Putin was concerned enough to send an Emergency Ministry team to Bushehr to assess the need for responder teams trained in nuclear disasters to come to the rescue.
The panic prompted a young Iranian nuclear scientist, who specializes in nuclear safety issues, to prepare a detailed report on the safety conditions at his country’s nuclear facilities.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that his findings were “catastrophic.”
Iran negotiates the purchase of heavy water from Argentina
Sensing that his report would go down badly with Iranian officials, including the national nuclear energy commission headed by Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, and fearing he would be punished or even silenced, the young scientist decided last week to pocket his report and defect.
Having reached one of the Persian Gulf emirates, he is undergoing debriefing by Western intelligence agents.
Our intelligence sources disclose some of the high points in the information he imparted.
Before addressing nuclear safety issues, the scientist revealed that secret talks were afoot between Iran and Argentina for the purchase of heavy water for the plutonium reactor Iran is building in Arak.
This reactor’s inauguration was due in late 2009. It has been delayed for three years, because Tehran is short of the heavy water suited to the reactor’s operation.
A month ago, Argentina, one of the four countries of the world producing heavy water, entered into negotiations with Iran on the expansion of their bilateral trade.
One item under discussion was beef, of which Iran is short and Argentina is a world-class exporter.
A more difficult item was heavy water. Never doubting that the US and the West would make sure it paid a heavy price for supplying Iran with this product in violation of their embargo, Buenos Aires decided to defy the West and ease its own acute economic crisis by charging Iran the earth for this particular purchase.
The young Iranian scientist defected with horrendous tidings
The Iranian scientist went on to report that, thanks to his position as safety expert, he was able to make several rounds of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, the Bushehr reactor, four plants in Isfahan where yellow cake is converted to UCF gas, and other nuclear facilities.
He came to the conclusion that the Bushehr atomic reactor would never be fully and safely operational because too many hands had taken part in its design and construction and caused incalculable malfunctions.
The German company Siemens AG came in first as designer and builder. Then, in the 1990s and in recent years too, engineers from Russia and the former Soviet republics installed the reactor core, turbines and other components. They had to improvise to fit the equipment into the structure and were never sure whether their makeshift patchwork would work well or disastrously.
The young scientist, after talking to Russian personnel employed at Bushehr, detected another serious problem: After the Soviet Union collapsed, engineers from the newly independent republics, where different reactor components had been manufactured, no longer coordinated their work. So by now, it is impossible to tell which components are safe and which are not.
As safety inspector, the Iranian defector relied on spot checks to do his job and cross-checks with colleagues on other nuclear safety teams, with whom he was in touch.
Bushehr can survive 18 months at most
The consensus of his Russian and Iranian colleagues, he reported, was that the Bushehr reactor had no more than 18 months of active life – or even less, given its location.
He pointed to another matter for concern: The reactor is situated close to a fault line in southern Iran which is prone to earthquakes. A major tremor, he warned, could cause the reactor to blow up with calamitous environmental consequences.
These concerns are ever-present since the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
They were especially acute since the Russians never managed to raise a double dome over the reactor although this is critical in case of a malfunction. If an explosion inside the reactor destroyed the inner dome, the outer layer would keep the radiation from escaping into the atmosphere. But in Bushehr it is missing.
His information about the Arak reactor was just as troubling.
Planned to produce 8-10 kilos of plutonium, this plant was built entirely by Iranian engineers without taking advice from outside experts. Although Iranians have no experience in this type of construction, they refused to expose their plans to international specialists.
Even after a three-year delay, Tehran cannot say when the Arak plant will be ready to function. Clearly, serious problems in design, structure and construction materials are yet to be overcome.
Ignorance and inexperience could produce a nuclear holocaust
The young Iranian went on to report that workers at the four plants in Isfahan, especially the facility that produces hexafluoride gas at the uranium conversion facility, and people living in their vicinity, have come down with mysterious illnesses.
The scientist estimates that in the five years since 2004, the factories of Isfahan have manufactured 271 tons of gas.
Because they are built close to population centers, any breakdowns – like the one in July, or aerial bombings would cause an ecological disaster with many casualties.
The Iranian scientist enumerated the hazards.
Even though the main facility has been sunk underground, the gas it produces is heavier than air and if the plant were to be damaged in any way, escaping gas would sink to the ground, contaminating the soil and poisoning subterranean water sources.
Entire regions would become unfit for human habitation.
The scientist concluded his report by noting that the Iranians lack the knowledge, the training and technology for dealing with the technical aspects of their nuclear facilities. They therefore extemporize and rig up solutions that may prove immensely harmful at some future date.
The tough international sanctions clamped down on Iran are restricting its purchases of technology and the recruitment of competent scientists and experts. Tehran is therefore having trouble completing projects. By winging it all too often, Iran’s nuclear program could end up causing a human and ecological holocaust.