Thursday, April 10, 2014

Iran and the Convention on Nuclear Safety

  1. to achieve and maintain a high level of nuclear safety worldwide through the enhancement of national measures and international co-operation including, where appropriate, safety-related technical co-operation
  2. to establish and maintain effective defences in nuclear installations against potential radiological hazards in order to protect individuals, society and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation from such installations; 
  3. to prevent accidents with radiological consequences and to mitigate such consequences should they occur.

After the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, it became clear that there needed to be better international cooperation in establishing safety standards for nuclear facilities, especially power plants. A series of international treaties aimed at reducing the risk of a nuclear accident were established following this catastrophe. One of the most significant of these is the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS). The Convention on Nuclear Safety was adopted in 1994, and like many other nuclear treaties is governed by the IAEA. There are 76 parties to the convention, including Belarus, Egypt, India, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Unlike many other international treaties, the CNS is set up as an incentive-based program. This convention is aimed at sharing safety techniques and protocols among the international community so that the risk of a nuclear accident decreases, and in the event of an accident, the effects are mitigated by increased awareness and preparedness. This treaty has been signed or ratified by every country with a nuclear power plant (there are 34 countries with nuclear power plants), with one exception.

Iran, despite it's insistence that its nuclear program is civilian, and entirely without military capability, has not signed or ratified the CNS. Even though in early 2013 the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations indicated that his country has been working to join the treaty, this has still not happened. While Chernobyl is now a distant memory for many, the Fukushima nuclear accident is a recent reminder of the importance of proper nuclear safety standards, and international cooperation to prevent catastrophic damage to the environment and to civilization.

Iran is one of the more prominent members of the Non-Aligned Movement, and does not always fully embrace the international community, especially the Western-dominated institutions. However, with others in a similar situation being a part of the CNS (Belarus and Syria are perhaps the best examples), Iran’s absence is even more curious. If Iran is trying to make a point and not conform to Western hegemony, why have these other countries acquiesced?

Iran may be concerned with spies taking information shared through a treaty such as the CNS, especially relating to the facilities at Arak, Fordow, and Natanz (some believe that the IAEA serves Western intelligence). However, the CNS is ONLY applicable to land-based civilian nuclear power plants, which does not include enrichment facilities, or other sensitive nuclear installations. Additionally, the CNS has clauses included in the text protecting information including: “personal data; information protected by intellectual property rights or by industrial or commercial confidentiality; and information relating to national security or to the physical protection of nuclear materials or nuclear installations”. 

The only reason that I can imagine why Iran would not want to sign the Convention on Nuclear Safety has to do with Article 6, which is as follows: '…the Contracting Party shall ensure that all reasonably practicable improvements are made as a matter of urgency to upgrade the safety of the nuclear installation. If such upgrading cannot be achieved, plans should be implemented to shut down the nuclear installation as soon as practically possible. The timing of the shut-down may take into account the whole energy context and possible alternatives as well as the social, environmental and economic impact.' From this, one can see the potential problem for Iran if the plant at Bushehr would have to be shut-down (temporarily or permanently). This would be both a significant blow to the prestige of the country and its scientists, and would also severely undermine the state’s PR campaign trying to assert it’s right to peaceful nuclear technologies. 

So why exactly has Iran not signed the CNS? What possible reasons do they have for not joining this treaty? Or on the other hand, what reasons does Iran have to join the treaty? Politics is about perception, why isn’t Iran taking advantage of a situation where they could get an easy win, deflecting criticism of their nuclear program? Are they saving this as an option for later?

The reasoning behind Iran’s refusal to join the Convention on Nuclear Safety remain unclear. The simple act of joining this treaty would allay fears that Iran’s stated desire for a civilian nuclear program is not genuine. It would also increase the possibilities for Iran to reintegrate itself into the international community. There are plenty of issues to argue over in the United Nations General Assembly, disaster prevention and relief should be a given.