Nuclear Safety and the Iran Framework Debate

Concerns about Iran's potential for weaponizing its nuclear capability are well-founded, as are fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states have plans for more than a dozen new nuclear plants within the next decade. They are said to be dedicated to generating electricity and desalinating seawater, but as with Iran, converting this capacity to weapons production would certainly be feasible.

Israel already possesses a nuclear arsenal, and the prospect of more players joining this dangerous club in such a volatile region is at least as worrying as the ever-present danger that exists not far to the east between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India.

Given the intense focus on Iran's intentions, it is logical that arms control issues dominate discussions about nuclear power in the Middle East. But receiving far too little attention are questions about nuclear safety. The lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima must be kept in mind regardless of how new nuclear capabilities are employed.

University of Southern California engineering professor Najmedin Meshkati has provided a lonely voice calling for common sense in working with nuclear energy. His extensive studies comparing the disaster at the Fukushima reactor with the far different situation at the nearby Onagawa nuclear power station, which was designed in such a way that it was able to shut down cleanly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, underscore both the importance and the feasibility of building nuclear power facilities that meet the highest safety standards. Meshkati has written that the Fukushima meltdown "was not due to the natural disaster, but was a result of consecutive decisions neglecting safety, rooting back to when the reactors were being constructed."

Safety is not as sexy as weaponry. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described an Iranian nuclear weapons program as an existential threat to his country, but he has largely ignored safety issues. Israel's proximity to prospective Iranian and Arab nuclear plants -- even if they are used for exclusively civilian purposes -- means Israelis are within the danger zone for possible nuclear accidents.

The pending framework for an agreement with Iran places considerable emphasis on inspection protocols, but these are designed to watch for development of weapons-related capabilities. As difficult as the negotiations have been, they nevertheless need to be expanded to include safety matters. And beyond Iran, assuming that other Middle East nations proceed with their plans to build nuclear reactors, a regional safety agreement that imposes tough, sophisticated standards is essential.

Many people breathed sighs of relief when agreement was reached about the current weapons framework. But now it is time to take another deep breath and negotiate further, seeking ways to keep safety paramount as the nuclear age moves onward.