Top Iranian Officials Reject Earthquake Risks Over Nuke Plans

VIENNA -- The leaders of earthquake-prone Iran have rejected concerns by the country's top scientists about a plan to build a national nuclear reactor network, according to intelligence shared with The Associated Press.

An official from a member nation of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency says the Iranian decision was reached shortly after Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, spewed radiation into the atmosphere and evolved into the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.

According to the official, key Iranian leaders reviewed a 2005 report on Iran's southwestern Khuzestan province -- site of a planned nuclear plant near the town of Darkhovin on the northern tip of the Persian Gulf -- that was updated in 2010 and early this year with a study of earthquakes that have hit other Iranian provinces in the last decade.

The official said Tuesday the report by Iranian scientists warns that "data collected since the year 2000 shows the incontrovertible risks of establishing nuclear sites in the proximity of fault lines" in Khuzestan and 19 other Iranian provinces.

The official, who asked for anonymity in exchange for divulging intelligence information, said the review was conducted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian nuclear chief Fereidoun Abbasi, Saeed Jalili, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Revolutionary Guard head Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari.

Despite the scientists' warnings, the meeting ended with instructions approved by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to continue work on nuclear reactor designs. It was also decided to restrict access to the report, entitled "Geological Analysis and Seismic Activity in Khuzestan: Safety and Environment" by deleting it from computers at Tehran University's Geographic Institute, the official said.

Beyond Darkhovin, Iran has not said where its other planned reactors would be built. But there are few places in the country that are not prone to earthquakes.

Iran is located in a zone of tectonic compression where the Arabian plate is moving into the Eurasian plate, leaving more than 90 percent of the country crisscrossed by seismic fault lines. The country has been rocked by hundreds of killer quakes over past centuries.

Iranian officials confirmed Tuesday that Tehran remained committed to the reactor program without confirming or denying that the leadership reviewed and rejected the scientists' concerns.

"We have long-term programs for peaceful use of the nuclear knowledge; we continue various activities and this will develop the country," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast.

Ismail Kowsari, deputy chairman of Iran's powerful parliamentary committee of national interest and foreign policy, told the AP that "we are pursuing a program to have more reactors."

Such a decision would run counter to moves by Japan, as well as nations with little threat from earthquakes and other natural disasters, to reduce dependence on nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

Japan has scrapped plans to raise electricity generated by nuclear power to 50 percent by 2030 from the 30 percent now and Germany is accelerating a 25-year plan to phase out nuclear energy altogether. Italy has put a one-year moratorium on plans to revive nuclear energy after shutting down its reactors more than 20 years ago.

But the recent move fits Iran's fierce commitment to its nuclear program, seen by the leadership as a signpost of national greatness and scientific advancement that puts it on par with developed nations.

Iran has long been at odds with the U.N. Security Council over the goals of its nuclear program. Iran says it is pursing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but the United States and other nations suspect it is trying to make a nuclear bomb.

Iran has bucked four sets of U.N. sanctions rather than give up uranium enrichment, an activity that can generate both nuclear fuel and fissile warhead material. It says it has a right to enrich under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and insists it is doing so only to be able to power its future nuclear network.

Ahmadinejad himself has described nuclear energy as "a blessing given by God."

The start-up of Iran's existing plant at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf began this month only after years of delays, but quickly ran into a new setback just a few weeks ago, when engineers had to remove 163 fuel rods after damage was discovered at one of the reactor's main cooling pumps.

Ahmadinejad sought to ease concerns in the wake of the Fukushima accident, telling Spanish state television that "all safety rules and regulations and the highest standards have been applied" to Bushehr's construction. But critics are unconvinced.

"Iran's decision to start up Bushehr without joining the Convention on Nuclear Safety is troubling," says Glyn Davis, the chief U.S. envoy to the IAEA. "Especially in light of the Fukushima accident, we believe it's of paramount importance that (IAEA) member states avail themselves of every opportunity to improve the safety of their nuclear facilities."

Seismologists say that there is relatively little risk of Iran being hit by a tsunami of the kind that combined with Japan's 9.0-magnitude earthquake to cause the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster.

But a severe earthquake alone can crack protective containment vessels that keep radioactivity inside reactors. Earthquakes can also knock out the power, crippling cooling systems that prevent reactors from overheating and possibly exploding.

Nine quakes that hit Iran in the last decades were big -- over magnitude six -- including a 2003 temblor that killed at least 26,000 people in the city of Bam. Scientists say more fault lines are waiting to be discovered and more major quakes are only a matter of time -- a poor prognosis for a nation that has staked its energy future on nuclear reactors.

"Not only do they have active faults, but many, many unmapped active faults," says Andrew Freed, an associate professor with Purdue University's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. "(It's) not a good place to build a nuclear plant."

John Rundle, a professor of physics, civil engineering and geology at the University of California, Davis, predicts that the region around the Iranian city of Behbahan stands a nearly 30 percent chance of being hit by a 6-plus magnitude earthquake within a year. For Bandar-e-Abbas, the chances are over 16 percent, while the capital of Tehran and its surroundings are listed at nearly 9 percent in his blog.

Among areas at risk, he says, is Iran's coastline -- where nuclear plants would have to be build due to their need for plentiful water for cooling.

Ross Stein, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, describes Iran as being "among the highest earthquake hazard areas" and suggests Tehran take heed of conclusions drawn in the United States.

Beyond two nuclear power stations built at a time of lower safety awareness, "you will not see any more plants built in California," he says of the most earthquake-prone U.S. state.