Those in the Iranian socialist opposition arguing for a nuclear-free Iran have either been absent from the Western left’s discourse or have been getting the short end of the stick from some in the US left. Trapped in a mentality as simplistic as that of George Bush’s, a good part of the US left has been repeating a similar logic, by saying that either you go along with the imperialists’ plans and support Bush or find excuses to support Iran’s government’s pursuit of nuclear energy.
This, in spite of the fact that the same American left-leaning activists and writers have a strong tradition of anti-nuclear stance when it has come to the US society. May E. P. Thompson’s soul rest in eternal peace, but I know that his spirit must be spinning in his grave.
The point of discussion here is not nuclear weapons, but the use of nuclear power for the peaceful purpose of producing energy.
Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a disaster to awaken some people’s deadened auto-responses. The US left has recently been re-sensitized to the dangers of nuclear power as a result of the recent earthquake in Japan, which caused the shut-down of a nuclear power plant. We have consequently seen many insightful articles questioning the wisdom of pursuing the nuclear route for providing energy, most notably by Ralph Nader and Harvey Wasserman, to name only two.
The disaster that gave everybody a wake-up nudge was the earthquake that rocked the western coast of Honshu Island on July 16, causing the shut down of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station, in the Niigata prefecture. More earthquakes as well as several aftershocks kept the area trembling well into the day and night. The resultant shutdown of the power plant has attracted the critical attention of many observers, thereby exposing many problems worrying the government officials, energy-producing company officials, experts, pundits, and ordinary citizens alike.
Increasing number of reports have focused on both the attempted cover-ups by company officials (in the immediate aftermath of the quake) as well as the understatements regarding the real and potential dangers of the radioactive leakage into the atmosphere and the surrounding water, and the its consequent impacts.
The fact that Japan sits atop a very active earthquake zone has meant that, over the centuries and especially over the last century, measures have been taken to design and implement high earthquake-proofing standards for buildings; particularly for nuclear power plants, which provide for some 30 percent of Japan’s energy needs.
We know that it is customary for capital to wish to save costs. Since safety measures cost money, nuclear energy providers are likely to meet building requirements not maximally, but only barely adequately. To make things worse, even if and when standards are devised, enforced and followed, earthquakes have dynamics of their own and may not necessarily limit themselves to the scope wished for by human-made regulations. For example, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant was built to withstand earthquakes of up to 6.5 magnitude; unfortunately, the July 16 quake measured 6.8; hence, the problems that arose.
This particular quake scenario, though, has not escalated to the worst-case scenario, but it very easily could have.
The same occurrence in Iran, however, most definitely and quite easily would have turned into a huge disaster. If an earthquake of such magnitude had erupted in, say, the tectonically active south-southwestern coastal plains of Iran, with the Bushehr reactor having gone live, you can bet your house that cover-up and evasion would have been the only ‘aid’ sent by the government to the people affected there; plus some troops to make sure, much like in New Orleans, that things didn’t get too out of hand.
For one thing, how much can we really trust the seismological surveys carried out to determine how near-or-far major fault lines are from the Bushehr reactor? What about the safety regulations? What about the environmental-impact studies for the best-case scenario? Has any thinking gone into plans for a worst-case scenario? Or, are the gentlemen in Tehran too dependent on good luck and divine protection?
And what about evacuation procedures should the worst happen? Iran’s roads are not exactly extensive or kept in any decent order. We know from New Orleans’ experience with Hurricane Katrina that even in a country with extensive highway systems, evacuating large populations can take very long and therefore be very hazardous at the least, and at worst a murderous deal, even when the effort is demonstrated to have been made. A nuclear accident, by contrast, is capable of precipitating extremely poisonous atmospheric and environmental conditions in less than an hour.
Iran stands atop many very active, large fault lines (see a relatively recent seismicity map of Iran). Of the major earthquakes that do occur in Iran, a good many are stronger than magnitude 6 on the Richter scale (from which point on, major damages increase exponentially). Here are some facts about recent major earthquakes 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; at least 500 killed.
· 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, thousands if not tens of thousands more suffered dislocation and complete loss of livelihood, which was never compensated for. Now, imagine the additional casualty and displaced figures if any of these quakes had been combined with the meltdown of a nuclear reactor!
It should be pointed out that the deaths occurring as a result of these quakes are far larger than they should have been, mostly because of lax building codes in Iran. Compared to some of the world’s highest standards for earthquake proofing available in Japan, we can easily state that no such standards exist at all in Iran. Additionally, the building codes that do exist are regularly ignored and violated by unscrupulous contractors, developers and even individual home-builders more inclined to bribe an official than bear the larger costs of building safely.
We would therefore be right to wonder aloud about the building codes implemented in the construction of Bushehr’s nuclear power plant. Likewise, we should be worried about the maximum quake strengths the plant is supposed to be able to withstand, and even more worried about safety and rescue procedures foreseen for a worst-case scenario.
Forget IAEA inspections! In Iran what we really need is a guaranteed right of citizens’ groups consisting of independent scientists, activists, and citizens’ direct representatives, to carry out inspections of nuclear facilities on demand. Transparency and open accountability is the most legitimate demand of any citizenry as regards governmental activities; when it comes to meddling with nuclear power, transparency in accountability becomes absolutely essential.
In Iran, however, there is no accountability for anything the government does. For example, and directly related to this topic, there is no accountability for the fact that in an oil-rich country, refined oil (for the everyday consumption of the people) is mostly imported! Refining oil is not exactly nuclear science (no puns intended, but take as many as you like). This is a century-old technology. Why is it that the Iranian government is not investing some of its vast sums of petro euros and dollars on improving the oil-refining capabilities of the nation, thus reducing the need for importing (much more expensive) refined oil products? Would this not be safer, more logical, more efficient, and a more economically viable short-to-mid-term investment of the national resources?
In Iran, it would be impossible to even bring to justice any government official who plays with peoples’ lives and livelihoods on a daily basis, and yet there are thousands of them who should be sued in a really existing legal system. Alas, there’s the rub! We do not have the most rudimentary legal structures in place guaranteeing the citizens’ right of oversight over anything the governmental does.
As any Iranian could tell you, there is only one branch of government in Iran, the Executive branch; the other two stems (sic; the legislature and the judiciary) merely decorate that one branch so it doesn’t look too bare. As enshrined into a theocratic constitution, the legislature, if it is anything but a rubber stamp, can easily be overturned by the Supreme Leader, as it has been repeatedly. The same goes for the judiciary, which has historically been a mere enforcer of the Executive’s will rather than an adjudicator of the laws of the land.
This situation clearly does not allow for a realistic system for citizens to keep a vigilant eye on the government’s handling of nuclear-powered energy production. Further, should any disasters occur (which is to say, when a disaster does occur), the government is guaranteed to act in the least responsive manner possible and to shirk as much responsibility as needed, leaving the citizens to bear the costs of a nuclear disaster on their own.
It is therefore the duty of any democratically inclined person, and more so the duty of leftists, environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists in the west, especially in the US left, to stand on the side of the well being of the Iranian people and unambiguously oppose any nuclear energy development in Iran carried out by an unaccountable government.
No doubt some ‘leftists’ will argue that demands for a halt to all nuclear activities in Iran amount to aiding and abetting the imperialists, especially at this historical juncture. But, to me, such logic smells too much like what the Zionists retort back, in knee-jerk fashion, to anybody daring to criticize anything Israeli. In the end, all fanatics argue in the same way: you are either with me, or against me!
What those so-called leftists do not understand, or willfully ignore, is that imperialism feeds on oppressed, un-represented people. To the extent that the Iranian regime stifles ‘its own people’ and their potentials by increasingly exposing them to larger harms, without providing any opportunities for their flourishing and development, to the extent that Iranian people are undermined by their government, they as a whole are more likely to be swallowed up by the plans and designs of the imperialists. Empowered people are the best defense against imperialist aggression.
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 to fully account and be accountable for any and all activities relating to the handling of nuclear materials, especially if nuclear facilities are built near dense population areas, and most definitely if those reactors are located on active tectonic plates, as is the case with the Bushehr reactor.
Lacking transparent accountability for the preparations that have occurred so far, as well as 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 easily lead to the enormous health threats of radioactive poisoning potentially lasting hundreds of years, causing mutations and deformations in the gene pools of all living organisms in the area for far longer, and destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people.
Nobody has an automatic right to take people down this kind of road! Definitely, not a government that refuses to be accountable to any on this earth, least of all to an absolute majority of ‘its own’ citizenry.