The use of nuclear energy in Iran faces several major challenges due to political and economic issues, with these problems set to increase in the near term due to the Iranian regime’s policies and its intransigence, which threaten regional stability.
One of the main obstacles currently facing the Iranian regime in regard to this issue is the economics of nuclear energy, driven by high capital costs; with the regime subject to severe US sanctions, it lacks the financial wherewithal to pursue the nuclear project in the required rigorous scientific manner in line with international requirements and regulations.
A second major obstacle in the regime’s path is concern over the potential for catastrophic accidents that would threaten not only the people and environment in the area near the nuclear plant but the entire region. Although the Iranian regime always claims to be working systematically to avert any life-threatening dangers to citizens’ lives and the regional ecosystem, these claims are viewed with scepticism by those familiar with the regime’s behaviour, with the fear over these risks being a primary cause of tension for citizens in the central Ahwazi province (Abu Shahr, better known as Bushehr) nearest to the regime’s nuclear facilities and in regional countries.
The third and largest major obstacle that poses the greatest challenge to the regime on this issue is finding a safe way to dispose of the nuclear waste produced that is both technically feasible and politically acceptable to the people inside the country (Abu Shahr), regional states and the international community. Failure to successfully overcome this challenge would have severe impacts on the environment, wildlife and the ecosystem, as well as on the economy and the health of the human population in local and regional areas.
There is no doubt that the construction and operation of the Abu Shahr (Bushehr) nuclear plant, more especially given its location in an earthquake zone, will have short- and long-term negative effects, both direct and indirect, on the environment, stability, security and economy, in Ahwaz itself and across the region, with this study aiming to investigate and interpret all these potential effects, as well as the inevitable impacts and problems which citizens of the central Ahwazi province (Abu Shahr) have already identified.
It is noteworthy that Iran is the only country operating a nuclear power plant that does not belong to the 88-nation Convention on Nuclear Safety, which was negotiated after the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl that resulted in large-scale pollution across a vast area and forced about 160,000 Ukrainians to abandon their homes. Failure to join this convention means the Abu Shahr nuclear plant is currently not subject to international rules and regulations governing the operation of these facilities, with the regime seeking to continue its project that threatens the stability of the region and the lives of citizens in central Ahwaz (Abu Shahr). 
Since the era of the Shah’s regime, Iran has sought to produce nuclear energy under the pretext of generating electricity in the country, with the city of Abu Shahr chosen for its proximity to the waters of the Arabian Gulf. The project to finish the nuclear plant’s construction was delayed after the current regime took power in 1979 due to domestic political tensions and the 1980-88 war with Iraq. In the 1990s, however, the regime managed, with assistance from foreign experts, to complete the project, leading to growing concerns about the effects this might have on the local and regional ecosystem, in a period when awareness of the escalating effects of climate change was starting to grow.
The Abu Shahr (Bushehr) Nuclear Power Plant is located on the Arabian Gulf coast 17 kilometres southeast of the city of Abu Shahr, between the villages of Helaylah and Al-Minaw (Bandargah). The facility plant has a Russian PWR reactor (1000-VVER) with a nominal capacity of 1000 MW.  In fact, the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) is only Iran’s first commercial nuclear reactor. In 1994-95, Tehran and Moscow signed an agreement to construct the VVER 1000MWe light-water reactor, and construction started the same year. 
The current regime was not the first to consider a nuclear power plant in this location, with work on the Abu Shahr nuclear plant first beginning in 1975 during the Shah’s reign, helped by German companies. This work was suspended in 1979 after the Iranian revolution, with the suspension continuing for over a decade, primarily due to the war with Iraq. In 1995, however, a contract was signed between Iran and the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry to complete the project, although work was again delayed for several years due to technical and financial challenges as well as political pressure from the West.
Since then, the Abu Shahr nuclear plant has increasingly become a source of international concern, not least due to its severe damage to the delicate ecosystem caused to the Arabian Gulf by the facility’s pumping untreated industrial waste, chemicals, oil and other waste products directly into the Gulf waters. Since the Arabian Gulf is a relatively shallow, semi-closed waterway that only connects only to open waters through the narrow Strait of Hormuz (Bab Al-Salam), the marine ecosystem and regional nations’ wellbeing and economies will be severely affected if Iran continues its nuclear project without deterrence and with a total lack of international monitoring.
Meanwhile, in Ahwaz itself, large areas in the central Ahwazi province face grave health risks and pollution threats due to the location of the Abu Shahr nuclear plant, which was constructed only meters from residential areas, with some neighbourhoods of Abu Shahr city, such as Sabzabad and Sirtul, as well as the villages of Helaylah and Al-Minaw (Bandargah), facing constant worry due to the activity of the nuclear plant.
Domestic level: Environmental Impact
The people, wildlife and natural environment of the Arab Gulf region and the areas around the nuclear plant itself, including the city of Abu Shahr – which has a population of more than 250,000 people – face a constant and severe threat due to the nuclear plant’s failure to meet even the most basic international operating standards. The use of dilapidated equipment and systems to operate the nuclear plant, which is under US sanctions, also poses further risks to the environment. There is no doubt that the fuel procurement and thermal load of cooling water that is discharged untreated into the Gulf’s waters during operations is a clear danger to the marine ecosystem and the local population. Among these things, the most important environmental concern is the thermal load on the sea caused by the waters used for the plant’s cooling towers.
When carefully monitored and produced in compliance with international regulations and with safeguards and protections in place, nuclear energy can be a safe, efficient way to produce electricity with minimal impact on the environment, with nuclear power plants able to consistently produce significant amounts of electricity. The Abu Shahr nuclear plant, however, fails to meet any of these criteria, instead having a damaging and extremely dangerous impact on the environment, the ecosystem and even on regional stability, as well as threatening the lives and health of Ahwazi citizens who live in the vicinity of the station due to the Iranian regime’s policies, with the plant in reality being used for military objectives rather than to generate electricity. Therefore, the continuation of the regime’s policy in the station will lead to military confrontations, such as targeting the station, so it will threaten the entire region’s environment.
According to Iranian studies, the budget spent on operating the station is exorbitant and in no way commensurate with the facility being used for its supposed purpose of electricity generation. For example, the Iranian First Vice President, Ishaq Jahangiri, announced that the cost of building two new units at the Bushehr nuclear power plant amounted to $8.5 billion, but Russian sources revealed that the number reached $10 billion.
Another danger that could lead to the Abu Shahr facility becoming Iran’s most perilous ‘power plant’ is the possibility that the combination of negligence, dilapidated equipment and lack of any careful planning, along with the technical problems that have dogged it since the start, could result in it becoming another Chernobyl, leading to a human disaster and destroying the economy and environment of the region. In a 2013 article published on the Voice of America site, Khosrow Semnani pointed out that “the Bushehr nuclear plant is an atomic gamble that the regime has created to strengthen its agenda in the region.”
“With the escalation of sanctions against Tehran, most international attention has been paid to the uranium enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordow, but the hypothesis suggests that the Bushehr plant is the most dangerous aspect of Iran’s covert nuclear activities,” Semnani warned.
The operation of nuclear power plants inevitably leads to the emission of some radioactive materials in the form of gases, liquids and solid waste leaching into the surrounding environment. In the case of the Abu Shahr power plant, the heat produced by the condensate coolant discharged into the waters of the Arabian Gulf can have some harmful effects on the marine ecosystem, such as thermal pollution. Air pollution from the station also damages the atmospheric environment in nearby areas, such as the city of Abu Shahr and local villages, with damning statistics from the regime’s own General Department of Environmental Protection for Bushehr Province showing that the city of Abu Shahr witnessed only 16 days of clean air in the first eight months of 2020.
While the rising pollution of the local waters, air and land all have a devastating effect on the local human and wildlife population, this is exacerbated for Ahwazi residents of some of the villages in the area who’ve been displaced or left by the nuclear plant’s devastating effects with no option but to leave, destroying their livelihoods and leaving many destitute. While many refuse to leave their ancestral homes and lands, their situation is precarious.
“We’re extremely concerned about the environmental destruction by the station, which does not respect international laws to protect the environment,” a resident of Helaylah village told DUC. Speaking on condition of anonymity due to well-justified fears of the regime’s retaliation, the citizen added that “health and economy in our village are linked to the environment. Therefore, we are concerned about our health, economy and heritage due to the spread of pollution and the destruction of the healthy environment.”
The resident added, “We have sent several messages to officials and MPs asking them to resolve this crisis, but we have not got any real support to end this dangerous predicament.”
It should be noted that according to international standards, the distance between a nuclear power plant and residential areas should not be less than one kilometre; despite this, however, the distance between the village of Helaylah and the Abu Shahr nuclear power plant is only six meters.
According to international standards, locations with a population density of more than 194 people per square kilometre are also totally unsuitable for construction of a nuclear power plant. On this, once again, the Iranian regime disregarded international norms, as well as the wellbeing of the thousands of residents of the two Ahwazi villages located 18 kilometres (11 miles) south of the city of Abu Shahr, and only meters from the plant, who are suffering economically, as well as in terms of their physical health and wellbeing, due to environmental factors resulting from the activity of the nuclear plant. 
The Abu Shahr nuclear plant also plays a lethal role in contaminating the region’s drinking water from local rivers, with the water crisis in Abu Shahr becoming a critical issue as residents, fearful of the effects of atmospheric radiation, have already note a deterioration in the quality of the water supply for domestic use, including drinking, as well as for agricultural and irrigation purposes. Another resident of Helaylah told DUC that the water crisis has left many local people fearful for the future, with the regime’s continuing disastrous environmental mismanagement already leading to large-scale displacement of citizens whose lands and properties are seized by the regime with no compensation for those forced to leave or any assistance from the authorities to protect their lives and economy.
In 2007, the World Bank estimated the cost of environmental degradation in Iran at about $10 billion a year, around 8.8% of the country’s GDP at the time; by comparison, the average cost of environmental degradation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries (OECD) was only 1 to 2% of GDP. Even in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the ratio of the cost of environmental degradation to GDP was far lower, averaging around a third of Iran’s. 
In general, the damage done by environmental degradation in Iran has increased significantly since 2002. According to a report issued by the Parliamentary Research Centre, neglect of “environmental economics” in Iran has caused average annual damage of $8.5 billion to the country’s economy since 2002, as well as resulting in skyrocketing instances of cancer, skin and respiratory diseases among citizens. In 2013 the situation became more disastrous, with the regime’s policies, including a massive dam-construction and river diversion programme in Ahwaz, helping to exacerbate the climate change cycle, leading to widespread and accelerating soil erosion and desertification.
All these factors make it clear that the Bushehr nuclear power plant is one of the most critical Iranian plants, threatening environmental and ecological stability in Ahwaz and the region, as well as devastating the marine and wildlife populations. The nuclear power plant’s cooling system takes the water required for its cooling system from the Arabian Gulf, converting the salt water to fresh water before using it, then pumping the used waters back into the Gulf. This system takes 2 to 5 million cubic meters of water from the Gulf daily, consuming 36,000 cubic meters.
Pumping the heated waters used in the nuclear plant’s cooling system back into the Gulf also has a devastating long-term effect on the marine ecosystem in the region, with the Arabian Gulf among the waterways at high risk of becoming acidic. This also puts a lot of pressure on the food chain for the indigenous Ahwazi citizens living on the Gulf’s shores in this central Ahwazi province, many of whom rely on fishing for their living as well as their.
The damage done by the Abu Shahr plant to the drinking water supply for residents of Helaylah and Al-Minaw (Bandargah), is just one of the environmental problems it’s caused along the Ahwazi coast. Residents of the two villages, located only six meters away from the Abu Shahr plant, used to get safe drinking and agricultural water from centuries-old wells fed by local groundwater before the construction of the plant began, but over time, this drinking water was rationed and water used for irrigation was drained and polluted. In addition to the freshwater supply problem, these villages face another crisis: the massive plant’s disposal of untreated waste water, including raw sewage via a specially constructed pipeline terminating near Bandargah, has devastated the agricultural environment in both villages, which once relied on farming, as well as fishing. Despite residents’ protest at this abusive behaviour, no action has been taken to remedy the situation. 
“We have been suffering from a water problem for 10 years,” one of the villagers told DUC, adding: “Some days and nights we have no water at all and sometimes water is delivered for less than 5 hours a day.” It should also be noted that due to salinity and pollution from the nuclear power station, the water which is available from the wells is now often brackish and undrinkable, unsuitable even for irrigation of crops. The resident added that both villages no longer have economically productive surface resources or groundwater due to environmental destruction and soil poisoning, adding, “Helaylah village had nine water wells before, but the plant drained the wells.”
Economic and other crises resulting from the adjacent nuclear plant are among the most acute concerns facing the residents of Helaylah and Al-Minaw. According to the 2006 census, the population of the village of Helaylah was about 2,000 (468 families) while 2,199 people (523 families) lived in Al-Minaw village. Under international law, these two villages, which are located near the Bushehr nuclear power plant, must be evacuated due to their proximity to the nuclear facility, which places intolerable stresses on their health and wellbeing, with the positioning of such facilities close to residential areas being strictly outlawed. As usual, however, the regime simply disregarded the wellbeing and fundamental rights of the indigenous Ahwazi people, as well as ignoring its own responsibility to provide alternative habitable residential areas and job opportunities for citizens forced by its policies to move to other places.
Most of the inhabitants of the villages of Helaylah and Al-Minaw (Bandargah) are reliant on agriculture or fishing for their livelihoods. After the agriculture sector, the services and welfare sector are the primary income sources for residents of these two coastal villages. Another source of income for the villagers includes activities in the industrial sector for leather-making and weaving. According to Iranian sources, 900 people in both villages work in the fishing sector, from 70 dinghies and 50 boats.
Without urgent remedial action, the deterioration of the agricultural and marine ecosystems in coastal areas near the villages caused directly by the Abu Shahr nuclear plant, which is intensified by the regime’s negligence towards the resulting economic crisis for the villagers, will lead to the collapse of the local economy, forcing many residents to seek job opportunities in service industries or even in the Abu Shahr plant itself, where Ahwazis are offered only the most menial of positions..
Previously, much of the population in both villages could rely on cultivating date palms, cotton, tobacco and grapes, as well as fishing to provide a steady income; with the 80 wells that once irrigated their crops now either almost totally dried up or so polluted as to be unusable as a result of the nuclear power plant’s construction and the subsequent poisoning of the groundwaters, the farmers now face an arable water crisis, with drinking water already rationed in the villages. Adding ironic insult to injury, the drinking water is provided by the same nuclear power plant which made the villagers’ natural freshwater supply undrinkable. 
Adding to their woes, residents in both villages are also denied the right to build, repair or extend their homes, despite their families living there for centuries, with this prohibition making it difficult even to maintain the existing buildings. This has made the earthquakes which regularly shake the area even more stressful for the residents, with one recent quake of unprecedented severity causing massive damage to many buildings which residents are forbidden from repairing. The restrictions and construction bans have added to the problems for the long-suffering villagers, forced to live in unsafe, dilapidated houses whose instability threaten the lives of residents, particularly older people and children.
The residents of the two villages also suffer from the same crises afflicting the wider Ahwazi population, with no local clinic or health centre, no schools or educational facilities, no asphalt for the dusty roads and streets and no public transport services provided to enable them to travel to the local city of Abu Shahr, there is no asphalt for the main roads. There are also no green spaces or even a local park in the villages.
Health and educational Impact
There is no doubt that the Abu Shahr nuclear plant has a serious impact on the health of the local population, as well as on local wildlife. In the past few years, significant numbers of deformities have been noted among local animals, as well as fish caught in the waters of the Gulf, with increasing rates of infertility reported by local residents, who are sure that this is due to pollution from the neighbouring nuclear plant.
The wastewater flowing from the plant into the rural environment is another problem for residents. Despite pressure from the regime’s own environmental organisation, officials at the plant constructed a vast and toxic open waterway four hectares long in total running just 700 meters from people’s homes and 200 meters from palm plantations, through which waste water is pumped. Concerns about the spread of disease, along with sewage from the nuclear power plant, have become another massive headache for residents in both villages of Helaylah and Al-Minaw (Bandargah), with even local officials speaking out to condemn the public health risks. According to Iranian sources, many children in both villages suffer from parasitic and microbial diseases due to the consumption of unsanitary water resulting from the nuclear plant’s activities.
A rural resident told the DUC: “We are very concerned about our health and the crisis facing the health of children, women and the elderly due to water pollution and the spread of toxins in the coastal area and villages resulting from the Abu Shahr nuclear plant.” The local resident added, “The authorities have promised to transfer us to safe places so that job opportunities and adequate housing are provided to us. However, the authorities have not kept their promises for decades, so we live in an unhealthy environment that threatens our health, security and economy, but we do not have a solution to end the crisis.”
Another serious problem that residents suffer is the lack of educational facilities. The school facilities in these villages are mainly in the form of flimsy tents, with students forced to study in conditions of dire pollution in summer temperatures that routinely exceed 120o, and with no clean water and electricity provided to any of the schools in both villages.
There is no doubt that, with the proper safeguards and conditions, nuclear energy is a safe important power source that can be used to generate electricity for any country without the greenhouse gas emissions produced by oil, gas or coal; in the Iranian regime’s case, however, there are no safeguards and no efforts to impose even the bare minimum of safety legislation to protect local residents or the environment and ecosystem; all that matters is the regime military and its nuclear plans. This means that the Abu Shahr plant has become a source of pressing concern for the residents of Ahwaz and the regional countries due not just to negligence but the horrific potential of the already severe environmental pollution, particularly given the dilapidated system and the location in an area prone to earthquakes, which threaten not only the local population and ecosystem, but the security and stability of the entire region.
Although the Iranian regime claimed that sustainable electricity production from the Abu Shahr nuclear plant is an essential element in the development of the country’s infrastructure which cannot be abandoned, according to the analyses of experts and the policy of the Iranian regime, it can be concluded that the pollution from this facility is already devastating the lives and wellbeing of thousands of local residents, especially those living around the plant, with the plant’s location and the regime’s negligence making the plant a lethal danger not only to them but to the entire Gulf region.
These concerns, including the very real possibilities of an earthquake and/or an explosion at the Abu Shahr nuclear power plant, which would devastate the local environment and ecosystem, making the area uninhabitable for centuries,, cannot be disregarded, particularly in light of the Iranian authorities’ failure to abide by international standards and safety regulations governing the construction and running of such facilities or to use appropriate technology under the supervision of international bodies. This means that the station’s continued operation without international monitoring will threaten the stability and environment of the region, more especially for the indigenous Ahwazi people in the area surrounding the plant, whose ancestors lived there for centuries in harmony with the environment but who now face daily suffering and stress as a result of proximity to the facility.
In conclusion, the Abu Shahr nuclear plant not only threatens the wider region, but has already played a major role in devastating the lives and wellbeing of the local population in Helaylah and Al-Minaw (Bandargah) through massive atmospheric and marine pollution, destroying their traditional way of life and economy based on fishing and agriculture while offering no compensation. This has led to poverty, stress and deprivation for the indigenous people, along with intolerable levels of pollution and risk from radioactivity. Many believe that the regime wants to force them to leave, using the plant to enforce its policy of demographic change, without offering them any alternative accommodation or livelihood opportunities. However, residents refused to be driven out of their homes to unknown places without obtaining the basic necessities of life, as the officials promised.
Any Chernobyl-style accident or major earthquake would see the grievous damage already inflicted on the residents of these two villages and the local environment and ecosystem by the Abu Shahr nuclear plant expanding across the region, where the facility has already polluted the groundwater and soil, and having a catastrophic effect on the Arabian Gulf itself. The world must take heed and act to stop Iran’s regime or force it to comply with international standards and safety regulations before the tragedy of Chernobyl is repeated in Abu Shahr, destroying the lives of more indigenous Ahwazis in the surrounding area and devastating the region.
By Kamil Alboshoka & Rahim Hamid
Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under @KAlboshoka
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
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