Iranian openness may enhance nuke safety

A report this week from the UN's nuclear watchdog reveals that Iran acknowledges a uranium enrichment program.

Iran is moving quickly to defuse Western concern about its nuclear ambitions, as the United Nations' atomic watchdog agency released a critical confidential report, leaked widely this week, detailing Iran's 18-year clandestine uranium enrichment program.

While UN inspectors found "no evidence ... related to a nuclear weapons program," Iran was chastised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for concealing "many aspects" of its nuclear effort that deal with the "most sensitive aspects" of the nuclear fuel cycle.

As it prepares for a Nov. 20 meeting of its Board of Governors on Iran, the IAEA said it welcomed decisions by the Islamic Republic this week to halt all uranium enrichment efforts and accept snap inspections by adopting the Additional Protocol of the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Iran's new openness could shed light on a nuclear program that has unsettled international observers because of its secrecy. It may also yield a less obvious advantage: Increased safety expertise from abroad that could curb the risks of a nuclear accident.

In its report, the agency said it required a "particularly robust verification system," and that, "given Iran's past pattern of concealment, it will take some time" to conclude the peaceful nature of the programs.

Striving to conform with an Oct. 31 ultimatum set to come clean on its ambitions, Iran acknowledged a centrifuge and laser uranium enrichment program, as well as the separation of small amounts of plutonium.

"The failures that Iran has been reproached for are minor, and only on the order of a gram or milligram," Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, was quoted as saying on state television. Though some test results are still out, experts say that traces of highly enriched uranium found in Iran over the summer were "molecular."

With the United States and European governments focused on trying to slow Iran's alleged attempt to build a bomb, safety issues have been largely overlooked.

That reluctance is likely to ease after Iran's deal in Octoberwith the European foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany which offered eventual access to civilian nuclear technology and expertise, in exchange for Iran coming clean about nuclear weapons issues.

Najmedin Meshkati, a nuclear expert at the University of Southern California, says the deal could bring Iran's nuclear program in from the cold when it comes to safety issues. Referring to the agreement promising "longer-term cooperation," Meshkati said: "I hope that it means state-of-the-art nuclear safety technology too."

The risks of isolation and secrecy have already manifested themselves, according to IAEA officials who asked not to be identified. They detail two incidents at a small five-megawatt research reactor in Tehran.

In one case in 2001, at least two control rods became stuck, but the reactor shut down properly without any release of radioactivity, the IAEA sources say.

And earlier this year, a similar incident occurred, prompting the Iranian authorities to ask for assistance from the IAEA to resolve the problem. The IAEA recommended replacing the aging stainless steel rods and buying new instrumentation for the reactor, which was supplied to Iran by a US firm in 1967.

Although Iran has shown a readiness to address safety issues that have been raised, many Western engineering companies and governments have refused to provide assistance. In one instance, the IAEA recently tried to organize a meeting between key figures in Iranian industry and representatives from regulatory bodies abroad. Fifteen countries declined to participate, so the event was canceled.

Until now, Iran has had to rely almost exclusively on Russian technology in the construction of a nuclear power plant in the southern port of Bushehr.

But the dangers are real, Mr. Meshkati wrote recently in the English-language Iran News. Iran's approach could "result in a piecemeal assemblage of potentially incompatible parts of dubious reliability in an untested reactor of questionable Soviet-designed technology with no operational track record and obsolete safety systems."

Further complicating the picture is that southern Iran is four times more earthquake prone than Russia. IAEA safety engineers have urged Iranian authorities to clarify how the reactor has been modified to account for the risk.

"Regarding the seismic threat, we think that issue should be investigated more thoroughly," says an IAEA official, who asked not to be named.

While Russia's nuclear industry believes it has learned from the tragic mistakes that caused the Chernobyl disaster, some independent safety experts remain concerned about safety issues.

The plant under construction in the southern port of Bushehr is a VVR1000 model, which is widely considered a far more reliable design than the reactor in the Chernobyl accident.

However, some countries using this model have chosen to enhance the instrumentation for safety systems, to make it more user friendly.

The Bushehr plant also presents a unique engineering challenge because the original containment vessel was designed more than 20 years ago for a completely different reactor. The Russian company hired by Iran in the 1990s has had to fit a Russian reactor into a German containment structure.

After reviewing a safety assessment document, a 20-member team from the IAEA recently urged the Iranian authorities to explain how they resolved this engineering challenge. Still, IAEA experts and Iranian officials say that the country's nuclear program faces no dire safety risk.

"Radioactivity does not recognize borders. For this reason, we are paying special attention to this issue," said Mr. Salehi, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, in an interview.

Iran hopes its compromise deal with Europe will clear the way for more outside assistance and equipment. But if the agreement falls through, safety experts are concerned that Iran's nuclear sector could end up like the country's troubled aviation industry, which has been unable to upgrade its fleet of pre-Revolution Boeing aircraft, and been plagued by accidents.

Salehi remains optimistic. "Of course, achieving safety standards requires a lot of know-how and technology from the outside world. After this agreement, I can see a light at the end of the tunnel."

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