Friday, March 18, 2011

No Nuke Power Plants for Iran, Please!

As more detailed news reaches Iran about the disastrous Japan earthquake on March 11, the most powerful in the last century, and about the resultant tsunami that has devastated the Sendai area in northeastern Japan, the Iranian people -- especially those living in Bushehr, the sight of the nuclear power-plant-to-be -- must be feeling not merely a sense of sadness for the people of Japan in these days of severe hardship and suffering. As the people of Bushehr in particular start digesting the implications for them and start to find out about more details of the unfolding disaster in Japan, they certainly will be reflecting on their own situation and the possible threats directed at them by the nuclear power plant that has yet to go live, in their port city on Persian Gulf.

Bushehr residents must be in deep anxiety over the existence of this nuclear plant in their city, built by a government that has demonstrated its absolute disregard for people's lives, a government lacking any and all accountability. They must be dreading the certain oncoming disaster should the nuclear plant start its operations. They know that they too regularly feel the earth shake under their feet since southern Iran often experiences earthquakes. They know that the Iranian government is no Japanese government. Safety standards? Pure fantasy! Earthquakes strengths the power plant is supposed to have been built to withstand? How about, earthquake strengths the plant is actually able to withstand? Evacuation plans? The residents of Bushehr must surely be surveying the available roads leaving the city, and most likely shaking their heads in despair, over the disrepair of the transportation possibilities and the sacristy of available choices of possible refuge.

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The Iranian people have a right to demand accountability for a series of issues involved with nuclear energy production in Iran: Where are the records of seismological surveys carried out to determine how near or far major fault lines lie from the Bushehr power plant? What are the safety regulations put in place? What about the environmental-impact studies for the 'best-case' scenarios (as in, where to store the nuclear waste, and how)? Has any thinking gone into plans for a worst-case scenario, for the necessary evacuations, for containment of the radiation contamination, and on and on?

Equally important, do the people in Iran have any oversight rights over any of the nuclear activities conducted by the government? Of course not. As well, is there a reliable infrastructure available to help rebuild lives in a worst-case scenario? Or, is Bushehr as a city, much like Chernobyl and vicinity, an expendable entity? In other words, are the ruling gentlemen in Tehran - and all the capitals signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - offering the people of Bushehr, as guarantees for their safety, mere luck and divine protection?

Iran rests on many large and active fault lines (you can see a seismicity map of Iran at: Seismic Hazard Assessment of Iran; by B. Tavakoli and M. Ghafory-Ashtiany). As shown in the seismicity map, southern regions of Iran are regions of regular tectonic movements.

Of the major earthquakes that occur in Iran, a good many are stronger than magnitude 6.5 on the Richter scale, from which point on major damage and destruction increase exponentially. Here are some casualty figures from recent major earthquakes in Iran, since 1972:

· Dec. 26, 2003: Southeastern Iran, Bam, magnitude 6.5; 26,000 killed
· June 22, 2002: Northwestern Iran in the Qazvin province, magnitude 6; 500 killed (included for a comparative frame)
· May 10, 1997: Northern Iran near Afghanistan, magnitude 7.1; 1,500 died
· June 21, 1990: Northwest Iran around Tabas, magnitude 7.3-7.7; 50,000 killed
· Sept. 16, 1978: Northeast Iran, magnitude 7.7; 25,000 killed
· April 10, 1972: Southern Iran near Ghir Karzin, magnitude 7.1; 5,374 killed

These casualty figures are very high as it is. In each case, additional thousands or tens of thousands more suffered also months and years of dislocation and loss of livelihoods, for which they were never compensated, nor were they helped in any way in rebuilding their lives. Now, imagine the (at least tenfold) additional casualties and displaced if any such earthquake is accompanied by the radiation contamination associated with the melt down of a nuclear reactor.

We cannot even imagine what nightmare we will face if a disaster of the same magnitude as that near Sendai occurred in Bushehr. We can, however, state categorically that not even a shade of Japanese building standards is likely to have been enforced or followed in the construction of Bushehr power plant; and we know for a fact that not one hundredth of the Japanese transportation infrastructure exists in Iran; and we know for a certainty that there will be little if any assistance provided the stricken people by the Iranian government in such a disastrous case.

We would therefore be right to question everything that has anything to do with nuclear activities in Iran. When it comes to nuclear power, transparency and accountability are essential. IAEA inspections are all fine and good for people living all the way on the other side of the globe. Inside Iran, however, and especially for those living in a city with a power plant, people need to have a guaranteed right of citizens' groups - consisting of independent scientists, environmental activists, citizens' direct representatives, etc. - to carry out on-demand inspections of nuclear facilities, the right to review books, regulations, safety measures, evacuation plans, and on and on. Transparency and open accountability are absolutely necessary exactly because nuclear activities can, in a variety of ways, cause very serious harm for hundreds of thousands of people and their entire environment, as well as the adjacent ecosystems.

In Iran, however, there is no accountability for anything the government does. As the world learned in the wake of the 2009 electoral coup in Iran, and in the course of the development of the movement by the Iranian people for the seven to eight months that followed (a movement which has now resumed), the Iranian government does not recognize any rights on the part of the people. The government's attitude toward the people is exactly as a king's would have been in feudal Europe some eight, nine hundred years ago, except that the government of Iran holds such antiquated attitudes towards 'its own' people, in a highly complex modern society in late capitalism.

Freedom of assembly and to peacefully gather in public spaces that rightfully belong to people, freedom of expression, freedom to organize independent labor unions, independent women's organizations or student organizations, freedom of attorneys to defend political prisoners and not be imprisoned themselves -- these are all luxurious terms in the Iranian context. People do not even have freedom from being tortured in secret illegal detention centers, no freedom from being raped (or threatened to), either by humans or objects if the interrogators deem it necessary to 'break' a prisoner; no freedom for parents to hold funerals for their children if those children are killed by the security forces of the regime; no freedom to have the graves of their children left alone by regime thugs who regularly vandalize those graves; and in some cases when the youth is politically imprisoned en-masse and are then mass-murdered in thousands, illegally and in an act of 'ideological cleansing', as happened in 1988, thousands have been denied the right to even have a known grave and are buried in mass graves (see, Khavaran).

This situation clearly does not allow for a system in which the citizens can keep a vigilant eye on the government's handling of nuclear-powered energy production. Should any disasters occur (that is, when a disaster does occur), the government is guaranteed to act in the least responsive manner, to cover up maximally, and to shun as many responsibilities as it can, leaving the citizens to bear the lethal costs of a nuclear disaster on their own.

It is therefore our duty to stand on the side of the wellbeing of the Iranian people and unambiguously oppose any nuclear energy development in Iran carried out by the current unaccountable government. 

Those who, like the Islamic regime in Iran, insist that pursuing nuclear power is an automatic right, must also be prepared to bear the responsibility, and be ready to be held accountable for any adverse outcome of the nuclear activities of the Iranian government; particularly when nuclear facilities are built near densely populated areas, and most definitely if those densely populated areas are sitting on top of active tectonic plates, as is the case with Bushehr power plant.

Lacking transparent accountability for the preparations that have occurred so far, and the plans for the future full operations of Bushehr's nuclear power plant, people have a legitimate right to demand a halt to all activities that could lead to large numbers of fatalities and enormous health threats for hundreds of thousands of people, a threat that will last for at least thousands of years in the best of circumstances (in the case of storing nuclear waste that remains radioactive for millions of years) .

On the other hand, Iran does have access to vast and endless amounts of alternative sources of energy: solar and wind. The right engineers can do the necessary calculations, but it seems clear that cultivating solar panel farms or windmill farms, can easily match the energy produced by wasteful and radioactive-waste-producing nuclear power plants. If China can develop solar panels, why not Iranian engineers? It is not like the development of solar energy is supposed to remain the sole monopoly of the western societies.

It is time for the left in the west to start building international alliances against nuclear energy per se. As regards approaching the nuclear issue in Iran, this would require a reorientation toward solidarity with the people of Iran and to think and act independently of the power calculations of the ruling classes both in the west and the ruling class in Iran.

It is time to stand in unambiguous solidarity with the people of Iran and their wellbeing. To do that as regards the nuclear issue, it is necessary to redefine the issue and to bring to it those missing social dimensions deliberately kept out by both western powers and by the Iranian regime. It is time to approach the nuclear issue from a principled stance, that of the people's interests, and to refuse to accept the terms of the debate presented to us by the western powers or by the militarist theocracy that has taken complete control of the Iranian state apparatuses and is suffocating the Iranian people.


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