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Iranian-Run Bushehr Plant has IAEA Oversight

In this third segment of the series, we examine the training being imparted to those who will operate Bushehr.

Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant has been completed. The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to which Iran is a member, says it is committed to imparting a "culture of nuclear safety" for all member nuclear power operators

An Iran energy official says the Bushehr nuclear power plant will go online later this year, producing half of its expected 1,000 megawatt output. When that happens, Iran will not be running Bushehr entirely on its own.

Russia's role

Russia's state nuclear power entity, ATOMENERGOPROM, completed the plant after years of delays. It is now training the Iranian staff to run it. ATOMENERGOPROM will remain on-site at Bushehr for the immediate future, as it has done with other client nations, such as China and India.

University of Southern California engineering professor Muhammad Sahimi says Russia has important reasons to work to ensure that Bushehr is operated safely.

"First of all, a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. So, if there is any major accident at the Bushehr reactor, given the proximity of Iran to Russia, the consequences of a major failure at Bushehr will also be felt in Russia, says Sahimi. “And obviously, if the first reactor does not operate well and has a major failure, then Iran will no longer buy any nuclear reactors from Russia."

The safety culture

The global nuclear power industry says it has a "culture of nuclear safety." That term is explained by U.S. trade group The Nuclear Energy Institute official Tony Pietrangelo. "It is basically the organizational behavior or attributes. And then, it goes down to each individual in that organization of how they conduct themselves, what they think about,” he says. “And you are never 'there' [meaning that you are perfect in your attainment], if you will. The safety culture exists on a continuum. You can always work to improve it. It is a questioning attitude. It is professionalism. And again, it is that profound respect for the technology you are dealing with."

A pillar of that safety culture is thorough training for those who will operate nuclear power plants. ATOMENERGOPROM's training regimen for Bushehr is described by U.S. Broookhaven National Laboratory senior scientist Upendra Rohatgi. "They are providing operator training in terms of classroom [instruction]. Then also, they have full-scope [covering all facets] simulators, which are the same as western [in terms of] standards, and then, in-plant training," explains Rohatgi.

Like the aircraft simulators pilots train on, nuclear power operators can to learn how to cope with problems and sudden emergencies without making real-life mistakes that could cause fatalities and devastate the environment.

Brookhaven's Rohatgi says the simulators ATOMENERGOPROM uses to train operators were provided by the United States as part of the international culture of nuclear safety.

International standards

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, of which Iran is a member state, will oversee operation of the plant. The IAEA sends teams of inspectors to nuclear power plants to ensure that best practices are being followed. IAEA Nuclear Installation Safety Director Philippe Jamet says, "They look at the training programs -- how the operators are trained to cope with accidents on simulators, and so on. And, we also look at the qualifications of people to perform maintenance. And also, the preparation of the plant for possible emergencies."

The Atomic Energy Agency of Iran has repeatedly said that as an IAEA member, it will follow that U.N. agency's operational and safety protocols at the Bushehr plant.

Nuclear power states have learned that to deviate from established procedures can be deadly. The most glaring example is the 1986 nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine. That accident was the result of plant officials conducting an experimental cooling system test on one of Chernobyl's reactors. The test caused it to violently overheat and explode, spewing radiation over much of Europe.

In the next segment of this series, the issue of nuclear proliferation in Iran -- and how the Bushehr plant might be a factor -- will be examined.