Alarm in Tehran and Moscow over Bushehr nuclear reactor’s near-explosion in mid-October
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report December 1, 2012, 1:13 PM (GMT+02:00) Tags: Iran nuclear Bushehr Russia-Iran Fuel rods removed from Bushehr nuclear reactorIran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr was shut down in mid-October for fear of an explosion. Saturday Dec. 1, an authoritative Russian nuclear industry source revealed the cause of its malfunction: “Indicators showed that some small external parts were… in the [Bushehr] reactor vessel….” They were identified as “bolts beneath the fuel cells.”
debkafile’s Moscow sources report this information came from a source in the office of Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian nuclear energy authority Rosatom, which supervised the construction of Iran’s first atomic reactor at Bushehr.
According to our intelligence sources, Russian scientists and engineers were rushed from Moscow to Bushehr when Russian leaders including Vladimir Putin were warned that the danger of an explosion at Bushehr was high. Neither Moscow nor Tehran reported what was happening. Now they are racing against the clock to get the reactor back on stream.
Russian experts estimated that an explosion at the Bushehr reactor had the potential for causing a million Iranian deaths and hundreds of thousands of radiation victims in the Persian Gulf emirates, which supply the world with one-fifth of its fuel. The hazard was so great in October that Putin ordered command teams of the Russian emergency ministry trained to deal with nuclear disasters to set out for Bushehr in southern Iran and prepare the infrastructure for larger teams.
The engineers immediately shut down the reactor and removed its 163 fuel rods. The bolts which had turned up in the reactor vessel were examined to find out from which part of the plant they had come loose – from the fuel rods – which would have embarrassed Russia as their supplier - or some other part of the reactor. The Russian source which revealed the mishap made a point of saying that the bolts were “small external parts,” indicating that they were not from the rods.
Our intelligence sources in Moscow report that two possible outside causes of the malfunction are under scrutiny by Moscow and Tehran:
1. The bolts were deliberately unscrewed and dropped into the reactor vessel as an act of sabotage;
2. The Stuxnet virus which attacked Iran’s nuclear program two years ago was back and had tampered with the reactor’s computers.
Five months ago, Iran suspended operations at the Fordo underground enrichment facility near Qom after the power lines supplying the plant were sabotaged on Aug. 17 and some of the centrifuges blew up. The Iranians resumed work at Fordo in the second half of September without discovering who was responsible for the incident. However, the suspicion of sabotage at Bushehr immediately crossed the minds of the Russian and Iranian investigators, although they have not ruled an accident or incompetence.
Bushehr supplies the Iran’s national electricity grid with one-fifth of its fuel and it was therefore important to get it running again without delay. Our sources report that Monday, Nov. 26, Iranian and Russian engineers reloaded the fuel rods – still without explaining why they had been removed.
Friday, Nov. 30, shortly before the disclosure from Moscow, Tehran for the first time in its twenty-year nuclear program showed concern about the impact of “nuclear accidents” at Iran’s nuclear sites on the wellbeing of the population and environment.
Gholamreza Massoumi, head of Iran’s accident and medical emergency center, announced: “We believe all of our emergency services should be trained and ready to face nuclear accidents.”
He referred to “accidents” at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility where yellowcake is converted into highly toxic uranium hexafluoride and revealed: “People who have been in the region, for example – Isfahan’s UCF – have had some accidents for which they have been treated.”
He admitted that some employees at Isfahan had suffered from “health issues” and warned of “problems that civilians living close to nuclear sites could face.”
Massourni’s comments were removed from the semi-official Mehr news agency’s website a few hours after they were published.
Officials in Tehran, already jumpy over the near-catastrophe in Bushehr, must have realized that the comments about the urgent need to prepare emergency services for nuclear accidents, if tied in with the “health problems” at Isfahan and the near-disaster at Bushehr, were a recipe for a nightmare scenario of mass panic in the population and an outcry in the Gulf region against the hazards of Iran’s nuclear program – even before it produces a weapon.