Atoms for Peace in the Persian Gulf: The Vital Byproduct of P5+1 Nuclear Agreement With Iran

01/07/2014 06:06 pm ET | Updated Mar 09, 2014

The primary objective of this essay is to discuss the following three important and interrelated issues which are largely unaddressed by the media and pundits in the U.S. The second objective is to introduce relevant engineering and science diplomacy-centric initiatives concerning nuclear safety in the Persian Gulf.

  1. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's seminal "Atoms for Peace" speech and the need for the U.S. leadership of its related matters, which is even more important today than in 1953;
  2. To highlight the serious long-term global nuclear safety ramifications of the P5+1 interim agreement with Iran, not only for this country but also for the whole region, which has not being discussed enough in Washington and elsewhere; and
  3. To point out the urgent need for starting a proactive regional initiative for cooperation on nuclear safety in the Persian Gulf, especially in light of the high growth rate of nuclear power generation capacity in that region and in the post-Fukushima disaster.

Sixty years ago, on December 8, 1953, before the United Nations, President Dwight D. Eisenhower outlined his strategic vision for the future of nuclear power in the world. The seminal "Atoms for Peace" speech laid the foundation for international cooperation on nuclear energy, which led to the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the creation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

According to his distinguished granddaughter, Ms. Susan Eisenhower, President of the Eisenhower Group, Inc., the "Atoms for Peace" speech "was a vision not a blue-print." President Eisenhower articulated his vision with the hope that it would:

"open up a new channel for peaceful discussion, and initiate at least a new approach to the many difficult problems that must be solved in both private and public conversations, if the world is to shake off the inertia imposed by fear, and is to make positive progress toward peace."

Now it appears that Eisenhower's vision may be realized in the Persian Gulf, but that the United States should help this along by encouraging a culture that leads to safety and more regional and international collaboration. Furthermore, the recent positive developments concerning the peaceful usage of atomic power by Iran and other littoral countries the Persian Gulf bode well for this process.

The P5+1 countries' interim agreement with Iran which was announced in Geneva on November 24th constitutes a step in the right direction toward peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear issue. According to this "Joint Plan of Action," the final step of a comprehensive solution would "include international civil nuclear cooperation ... as well as agreed R&D practices." Realization of this clause through jointly conducted research and development in risk reduction, human performance and safety culture would doubtlessly improve the safety of Iran's newly finished Russian-designed and built VVER-1000 nuclear power reactor on the Persian Gulf coastal city of Bushehr and its future to-be-built plants.

However, the sad irony of commemorating "Atoms for Peace" 60th anniversary speech with its calling for global engagement in last December was that, at the same time on Thursday Dec 20th, the U.S. Senate proposed a legislation that threatens Iran with tough new sanctions that will certainly kill the aforementioned interim agreement and trash the "Joint Plan of Action" with Iran. The Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2013, will give the badly needed excuse to and energize (the strong and only temporarily sidelined) hardliners in Tehran who have traditionally been against any accommodation with the West to unleash their uncompromising rhetoric and to activate their insular agenda. Therefore, this Act and its linkage to Iran's complex domestic politics will enable hardliners in Iran to gain the upper hand; it not only will eliminate any chance of negotiated settlement with Iran over its nuclear programs, but also will abort any prospect for the badly needed regional cooperation among the eight littoral states of Persian Gulf.

The Senate Act puts the U.S. on the wrong side of the history; as the unintended consequences of this new sanctions legislation vis-à-vis nuclear safety in the Persian Gulf, in the long run, could potentially be catastrophic for everybody; including all the U.S. allies and assets in the region.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that even Israeli Prime Minister Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu's four demands concerning Iran, which were articulated in his recent speech before the General Assembly of the UN and oft considered as "maximalist," were conspicuously silent about Bushehr nuclear power plant and safety-related activities. He was/is not asking to "cease" (as for Iran's all uranium enrichment), to "remove" (as for enriched stockpile), to "dismantle" (as for the Fordo facility), and to "stop" (as for the Arak reactor) Bushehr plant and its supportive activities.

It seems that Persian Gulf region is destined to be dotted with nuclear power plants in the next few decades and is becoming the world's main bazaar for nuclear reactor vendors in the near future. Both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have plans to have operational nuclear power plants before 2020. The UAE have already signed contracts with a South Korean consortium to build four reactors; concrete were poured for two -- Barakah Unit 1 &2 -- in Abu Dhabi; they expect to become operational in 2017 and 2018. Saudi Arabia announced plans to construct sixteen nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years; other Persian Gulf states have also expressed interest in nuclear power for electricity generation and seawater desalination purposes. Also Iran also plans to build more reactors; "the construction of the second one will start soon ... and there will be nuclear plants in most parts of the Bushehr province," according to President Rouhani who said it when he visited the city of Bushehr in early December, 2013. It was echoed by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov who confirmed during his recent visit in Tehran on December 11th that Iran "plans to build more power units identical to the Bushehr one." In a most recent interview on December 28, 2013, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi declared that "in the long-term, next 20-30 years, we intend to generate up to 20,000 megawatt of nuclear electricity ... In the medium-term, 10-12 years, we plan to build 3 or 4 new nuclear power plants ... for which we have started negotiation with Russians."

Persian Gulf countries should learn from the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents and look beyond just hardware-related factors to natural and man-made disasters. Two USC internationally-renowned tsunami experts colleagues whom I talked with believe that the risk of seismic activity and tsunami in this region should not be dismissed or underestimated; especially due to the realistic potential for a large (magnitude 9) earthquake in the Makran Subduction Zone, offshore of southern Iran in the Indian Ocean.

As a professor of engineering who has conducted research on nuclear safety for the last 30 years, visited many nuclear power plants around the world, including Chernobyl and Fukushima and seen their exclusion zone wastelands, and developed and taught a graduate level course at USC entitled, "Nuclear Safety and Security: Human Performance and Safety Culture" (CE 571), I believe that Persian Gulf countries should urgently consider and proactively address the vital importance of safety culture in their nascent nuclear industry. Many credible studies have concluded that the Chernobyl disaster was caused mostly by the "safety culture" in the Soviet nuclear industry at the time of the accident. Concerning the vital role of safety culture in the Fukushima disaster only suffice to refer to the comprehensive report of the National Diet (Parliament) of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC, July 2012) and to quote its chairman, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa's bold "Message From the Chairman":

"Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster - that could and should have been foreseen and prevented ... This was a disaster "Made in Japan" ... Japan's nuclear industry managed to avoid absorbing the critical lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl ... It was this mindset that led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant." (Emphasis added)

And also as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory (NRC), Dr. Allison M. Macfarlane said, "there are many lessons that we must all take away from the accident at Fukushima, but some of the most valuable extend beyond the technical aspects and are embedded in human and organizational behaviors. Among these is safety culture." (Emphasis added, speech at the IAEA, September 17, 2012).

Moreover, safety of nuclear power plants transcends national borders and is becoming a legitimate regional and international concern. Travelling radiation fallout doesn't discriminate among its victims based on their nationality, creed, religion, sect, race, or even the content of their characters; in the Persian Gulf all will be "downwinders." As nuclear physicist, the late Alvin Weinberg once said, "a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere."

Therefore, the nuclear power industry in the Persian Gulf should strive for the highest universal standards and close cooperation among its operators and regulators. They should start to forge a balance between their national sovereignty and international responsibility, when it comes to the safety of their nuclear power plants. Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Mohamad Javad Zarif has also acknowledged and underscored the importance of the essence of this fact in his recent article about Persian Gulf, entitled, "Our Neighbors are our Priority"(Asharq Al-Awsat, November 21, 2013):

"In our interconnected world, the fate of one nation is tied to the destinies of its neighbors. The body of water that separates us from our southern neighbors is not just a waterway -- it is our shared lifeline. All of us depend on it, not just for survival, but to thrive. With our fates so closely tied together, the belief that one's interests can be pursued without consideration of the interests of others is delusional."

Persian Gulf countries should be entitled and enabled to learn about and ascertain the adequacy of each other's specific safety considerations and practices. However, they should refrain from politicizing nuclear safety to exert pressure, trying to interfere with or sabotaging the P5+1 process with Iran. As such posturing will be highly counterproductive and, in the long run, will have serious adverse unintended consequences for everybody. Exhibit A: After the Fukushima incident, certain countries in the Central Asian and the Caucasus regions demonstrated heightened sensitivity and expressed concerns about safety and the vulnerability of Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant in Armenia. However, they failed to come together and address this issue in a constructive way. There was even a public dispute between the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, and the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, over their diametrically different positions on the safety of Metsamor, in front of more than fifty world leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul on March 27, 2012. This posturing did not achieve anything for anybody; no substantive result except for heightened antagonism and animosity, neither additional safety for Metsamor nor alleviating concerns of neighboring countries.

Nuclear safety must be decoupled from political considerations. Technology and know-how that relate to nuclear safety should be addressed in a cooperative and problem-solving spirit, in full transparency and openness at bi- or multi-lateral professional/technical forums. They should never be made a pawn of political feuds. To paraphrase the French statesman Georges Clemenceau, nuclear safety is much too serious a matter to entrust to politicians.

Suggestions

The following hybrid initiatives of engineering, science and public policy with (multilateral) diplomacy, are not necessarily an exhaustive list. Furthermore, some of these initiatives could and should simultaneously be implemented, thereby paralleling other (bilateral) efforts. The suggested initiatives are grouped into two main clusters, to be taken by the Persian Gulf littoral states and by the United States with support of the international community.

However, it should be noted that the existing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), because of its lack of inclusiveness (Iran is not a member) and its primarily political and security-centered origination, presently is neither structurally ready nor technically equipped to spearhead this new institutionalized initiative. The cooperation on nuclear safety among Persian Gulf countries, despite their diverging views concerning regional issues or their alleged rivalry or "proxy wars" in other lands, is nevertheless quite achievable. It has been reported that even during the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, French and British scientists maintained working contact. Science, as an ultimate human intellectual endeavor, has always been "rising above political and diplomatic affairs." Of course, in addition to safety, one important byproduct and unintended (positive) consequence of these safety-centric engineering, science diplomacy, and confidence building efforts could be better relations among these countries.

Iran, the country with the longest shoreline, bears higher proportional responsibility to protect the environment and preserve the natural resources of this body of water. As such, it should start and lead the pack of the littoral states in related efforts. Taking on this novel role is also in line with Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs' new "Foreign Policy Orientation, Plan ... (and) Operational Strategies", which calls for "reconstructing/restoring and strengthening Iran's regional and international role" and explicitly recommends "creating regional institutions, especially security arrangements and cooperation in the Persian Gulf." (Emphasis added)

Initiatives to be taken by Iran and other Persian Gulf Littoral States Initiate an institutionalized effort for nuclear safety in the Persian Gulf

  • For start, Persian Gulf littoral states could utilize an already existing nimble entity, the Marine Emergency Mutual Aid Center (MEMAC), which is an existing regional intergovernmental organization in the Persian Gulf, for such proactive cooperation on nuclear power safety. The MEMAC, which has already developed provisions for radiological and nuclear emergency response plans, should be given additional responsibilities and recourses to empanel and empower a standing major new division to coordinate nuclear safety efforts of members countries, with two separate but parallel subdivisions, one for their plants operators and the other for (hopefully, independent) regulators. This division could lay the foundation of a to-be-created multidisciplinary international and interregional center of excellence for coordination, cooperation and collaboration on research and training in nuclear safety, which can be modeled after the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission in Ispra, Italy.

Initiate immediate contact, develop collaborative relations and partnerships with international governmental and nongovernmental organizations

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Arab Atomic Energy Agency (AAEA) enjoy institutional memory and resident expertise that should be utilized in Persian Gulf, however, through a focused and well-defined task orders approach. The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), which is a NGO, could contribute by helping with peer reviews, technical support and exchange of nuclear safety-related data. Other potential collaborative partners could include, the Institute of Nuclear Safety System (INSS) in Japan, which was created by the Kansai Electric Power Co., Inc. (KEPCO) after the Mihama accident in 1991. The INSS's word-class research on different aspects of nuclear safety in the last twenty years, especially its post-Fukushima studies are of paramount importance and could have valuable lessons for nuclear plants of Persian Gulf.
Utilize, implement, benchmark and share nuclear safety culture in Persian Gulf
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) in the U.S., have developed seminal guidelines and codes of practice for safety culture that could be utilized in Persian Gulf, of course with full respect to the cultural contexts of this region. For instance, Iran's operational plant in Bushehr should implement and start to benchmark against IAEA's Safety Culture in Nuclear Installations: Guidance for use in the Enhancement of Safety Culture (2002) and INPO's Traits of a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture (2013); the UAE's under-construction Barakah plant should start to implement and benchmark against IAEA's Safety Culture in Pre-Operational Phases of Nuclear Power Projects (2012); and there should be periodic regional multilateral meetings of the littoral states to freely share and discuss their experiences and bench markings.
Conduct comprehensive seismic and tsunami risk and vulnerability analyses for Persian Gulf
  • According to experts, there is no comprehensive, technically robust and universally acceptable seismic and tsunami hazards and risk analysis for the Persian Gulf. It is of paramount importance to form and empanel an international group of experts to conduct such analyses, re-evaluate the sub-sea geology of the Persian Gulf, search for unknown faults, etc. And via international collaboration and peer-review, develop the most technically sound inundation model for the Persian Gulf.

Welcome, accept with alacrity and build upon Iran's invitation to nuclear safety gathering in 2014

  • It has been reported that a senior Iranian official at the 60th Pugwash Conference on Science& World Affairs, which was held in Istanbul, Turkey (November, 1-5, 2013), took the initiative of reaching out to Iran's Persian Gulf neighbors. In his speech on November 3rd, Ambassador Behrooz Kamalvandi, vice president for International, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), formally invited "all the neighbor states and specially Persian Gulf littoral states to a top level technical gathering on safety of nuclear power plants in the region." And to show Iran's "political determination as a responsible state" he declared, "the readiness of my country to host a regional or an international conference on nuclear safety to be held in late 2014 in Iran, preferably in historical city of Isfahan, in full coordination with the IAEA." Iran's invitation should be welcomed by everybody and the AEOI should immediately start preparation for such an unprecedented undertaking by inviting its counterpart organizations in the Persian Gulf - leading with the King Abdullah City for Atomic & Renewable Energy of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) of the UAE -- to designate a senior-level liaison officer to form the conference technical steering committee in order to spearhead development of its main themes and technical agenda. Hopefully, the suggested Isfahan conference will inspire creation of standing topical working groups that will be meeting periodically and the conference itself will be rotated and be held on an annual basis at other Persian Gulf states.

Initiatives to be taken by the United States and the International Community

Refrain from passing new sanction resolutions

  • The U.S. Congress should not only refrain from contemplating new sanction resolutions on Iran and (the Senate) table its newly proposed bill, but also should join forces with the administration and fully support the implementation of the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, which will be welcomed by the whole world.

Authorize, empower and encourage U.S. governmental and nongovernmental organizations with expertise in nuclear safety to participate Persian Gulf

  • Moreover, Congress should authorize and appropriate extra funding for cognizant US agencies such as the USNRC, DOE, the national laboratories, and support nongovernmental organizations, e.g., Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), to actively participate and lead nuclear safety initiatives in the Persian Gulf. As a first step towards this goal, the mandate of Sandia National Laboratories' new good start program with the UAE -- the Gulf Nuclear Energy Infrastructure Institute (GNEII) -- and its depth and breadth should drastically be expanded to include other countries in the region.

Final Words

As the renowned torchbearer of "Atoms for Peace," Ms. Susan Eisenhower most recently reminded us on the 60th anniversary of her grandfather's speech, "aside from the carbon-free generation of electricity, nuclear energy has also provided ways -- ironically -- for many countries of the world to cooperate. For those nations in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, peaceful nuclear cooperation has, at times, been extraordinary -- making the world a safer place." Ensuring peaceful resolution of Iran's nuclear issue, by supporting the interim agreement to eventually culminate in a comprehensive solution, and marshaling nuclear safety efforts in the Persian Gulf constitute realization of what President Eisenhower envisioned for the U.S. and promised the world some sixty years ago in the "Atoms for Peace." Now it is up to the United States to support and help fulfill this grand vision, at least in the Persian Gulf. The alternative is unimaginable...

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Najmedin Meshkati is Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Industrial and Systems Engineering, and International Relations at the University of Southern California (USC). He was a Jefferson Science Fellow and Senior Science and Engineering Advisor, Office of Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State (2009-2010). He has been conducting research on human performance safety culture of nuclear power industry and has inspected many nuclear power plants around the world, including Chernobyl (1997) and Fukushima (2012). He has also been involved, as a member and technical advisor, with the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Committee to conduct a congressionally mandated study entitled "Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants." He is the author of "Engineering diplomacy: An underutilized tool in foreign policy," Science & Diplomacy (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, June 2010).