By Harvey Morris
Published: April 2 2007 03:00 | Last updated: April 2 2007 03:00
International sanctions to starve Iran's nuclear programme have heightened the risk of a radiological disaster that could spread across the Gulf, according to a new British report.
John Large of Large and Associates, UK nuclear consultants, writes that once the Bushehr civilian reactor in southern Iran goes into operation this year, a safety failure - a radioactive leak - could threaten Gulf shipping lanes and Arab Gulf states.
"The United Nations Security Council sanctions are aimed at halting, or at least impeding, the transfer of knowledge, information and equipment relating to Iran's uranium enrichment and heavy water related undertakings," the report, commissioned by the United Arab Emirates' Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, states.
"The irony here is that perhaps the culture essential to maintaining nuclear safety for Iran's separate civil nuclear power programme will be left wanting."
The Bushehr civilian power plant, nearing start-up with Russian assistance, was excluded from United Nations sanctions imposed last December and strengthened this week in an attempt to halt a nuclear programme that experts believe is geared to producing a bomb.
Although Russia would be responsible for overseeing safety and taking charge of spent fuel at the Bushehr plant, Mr Large expressed concern that Iran's isolation from the international nuclear science community would compromise safety at it and other plants.
The report leaves little doubt that the Iran's overall programme would provide it with dual civilian-military capabilities.
The plant at Bushehr "would not, on its own, provide sufficient demand to commercially justify the sheer scale of Iran's ventures into the uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel manufacturing fields."
But Mr Large believes the Iranians have run into problems in perfecting centrifuge uranium enrichment technology at a plant at Natanz and have therefore boosted a heavy water project to produce plutonium at Arak in eastern Iran.
"Reading between the lines suggests that Iran has encountered considerable technical and logistical difficulties and setbacks in its endeavours to establish itself as a nuclear power in the region," the report says.
However, the Arak project "would enable Iran to venture along the route of acquiring a plutonium-cored nuclear weapons arsenal, like North Korea."
Assessing the radiological risks of accident or military strike against Iran's widely dispersed nuclear facilities, Mr Large says little or no contamination would spread from Arak until the plant was up and running.
The Arak facilities would be safe at least until the start-up of the plutonium breeding reactor. Damage to underground facilities at Natanz would pose a radiological threat but it would be confined to the workforce and local population.
However, "the radiological aftermath of an extreme radioactive release at Bushehr, either as a result of a military strike or a severely damaging accident . . . could require rapid implementation of population protection measures," Mr Large writes.
A radioactive plume would potentially contaminate the southern Gulf, including the territory of the UAE.
The report says a punitive strike on Bushehr would have little significance to an Iranian military programme. But after it went into operation, accidental or deliberate damage "might result in an untoward release of radioactivity accompanied by intolerable health and economic impacts across the region."