Leveraging Its Latest Nuclear Setback to Further Tighten the Screws on Iran

Blink and you might have missed it. Or, more to the point, fallen asleep before you got to item number 42 under “Other Matters” of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program. (Link courtesy of Arms Control Wonk.) It reads:

On 15–16 February 2011, the Agency conducted an inspection at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant . . . and has verified the nuclear material present in the facility. On 23 February 2011, Iran informed the Agency that it would have to unload fuel assemblies from the core.

In the New York Times William Broad and David Sanger explain the significance of that item.

Iran told atomic inspectors this week that it had run into a serious problem at a newly completed nuclear reactor that was supposed to start feeding electricity into the national grid this month, raising questions about whether the trouble was sabotage, a startup problem, or possibly the beginning of the project’s end.

It doesn’t appear to be connected with the Stuxnet computer virus that ravaged Bushehr’s reactors, though. Instead, Reuters reports:

Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Bushehr may have a problem with equipment in its primary cooling circuit.

“At Bushehr there is a critical interface in this area between equipment supplied by German industry and equipment supplied by the Russians,” Hibbs said.

“If there is a problem in that equipment . . . that could delay the start-up of the unit for a few months.”

Reuters also quotes Olli Heinonen, former head of IAEA inspections, who said that “the issue could be embarrassing for the Russian operator of Bushehr, Rosatom. Full responsibility for the plant is only ‘supposed to be turned over to the Iranians after the first refuelling which is estimated to take place perhaps two years from now,’ he said.” In other words, it’s happening under Rosatom’s more than Iran’s watch.

Thanks, Reuters, for that measured account. If only Broad and Sanger could have refrained from once again soliciting comments from one of the mainstream media’s go-to guys on nuclear issues, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Never one to let an opportunity to ratchet up pressure on Iran pass him by, Albright said:

It raises questions of whether Iran can operate a modern nuclear reactor safely. . . . The stakes are very high. You can have a Chernobyl-style accident with this kind of reactor, and there’s lots of questions about that possibility in the region.

Note that Albright has doubled his Iran alarmism fun. First, invoking Chernobyl may be a sly attempt to leverage an intelligence report about which George Jahn wrote for the Associated Press last month. It was, “drawn up by a nation closely monitoring Iran’s nuclear program” on the effects of Stuxnet.

“The minimum possible damage would be a meltdown of the reactor,” it says. “However, external damage and massive environmental destruction could also occur . . . similar to the Chernobyl disaster.”

Number two: by applying the Chernobyl comparison to the fuel unloading as well, Albright, aided and abetted by Broad and Sanger, is making it look like another setback to Iran’s program that originated from outside the country has joined Stuxnet in making a second Chernobyl even more likely.