Anna Kopilovsky was working as an engineer in a large communications company in Belarus when a technician called her to tell her about an accident at the nuclear facility in Chernobyl.
She was then living in Gomel, about 120 kilometers from where disaster struck on April 26, 1986.
“I had studied physics and I knew instantly that this was serious. The problem was, people in my city didn’t quite understand how dangerous it was. They were roaming the streets thinking this accident had nothing to do with them.”
What emerged was the largest and most lethal nuclear disaster in history.
Kopilovsky, then 26, was living in a 35-unit apartment building, housing families of emergency workers, most of whom were sent to volunteer in Chernobyl immediately after the accident, to help with damage control.
“Within a year, at least one person in each apartment had died, including my father, who was also a volunteer,” she recalls. “It was only a month after the disaster that people in Belarus started to realize that something serious had happened.”
Before the Chernobyl accident, no one in the vicinity gave the reactor a second thought.
“People just said, ‘There’s a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl that creates electricity; it’s healthy, it’s fine and nothing will happen.’ Who would have dreamed?”
Some of the worst effects of the Chernobyl disaster were not only felt in the Ukraine, but also in neighboring countries such as Belarus, which absorbed at least 60 percent of the radioactive fallout from the disaster.
Two decades on, the horrors of Chernobyl linger like a cloud over the Persian Gulf. Inhabitants fear history could repeat itself in their neck of the woods, as they follow developments in Iran, their large neighbor to the north.
Tehran is currently at odds with the international community, which fears its controversial nuclear program is intended for building a bomb.
But bomb or no bomb, Gulf countries are troubled by the emergence of a nuclear program in their vicinity.
Threats of a Borderless Environment
“We all share the same climate and environmental zone,” says Sami Al-Faraj, president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies, who is also an adviser to governments in the Persian Gulf.
Winds in this region tend to blow from Iran southward, to the Gulf, so a nuclear leak would ultimately carry poisons or contamination from Iran to its southern neighbors, he explains.
The Persian Gulf has an unusual feature that distinguishes it from other gulfs in the world, in that its currents run counter clockwise, not clockwise.
In the case of a nuclear disaster, this means contamination will move from Iran to the coasts of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Al-Faraj is especially concerned about his home country, Kuwait.
“Our desalination plants, our fisheries, our sources of trade and transportation, all of these activities will be affected, especially our food and water security,” he said.
The largest concern involves an $800-million nuclear facility being built in Bushehr, in southwest Iran, under an agreement between the Russian and the Iranian governments.
Bushehr is the southernmost nuclear facility in Iran and is located about 300 kilometers (188 miles) away from both Bahrain and Kuwait, as the crow flies. In contrast, fallout from Chernobyl transcended continents and is said to have even reached the eastern coast of the United States.
A nuclear accident at Bushehr threatens not only the region’s environment, but also world oil supplies. Contamination could reach strategic oil fields and damage the supply of oil from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Al-Faraj says.
Greenpeace has also voiced concerns over the Iranian nuclear program.
“Any type of nuclear energy generates nuclear waste, which is by all standards an environmental hazard,” says Ido Gideon, spokesman for Greenpeace Israel, which has been studying the impact of the program on the region.
In addition, he points out Iran’s volatile position, both geologically and politically.
“The thing about the Iranian nuclear program, from our perspective, is that there is no transparency,” Al-Faraj laments. “They are oblivious to our concerns. They label us stooges of the United States and say we’re repeating Western propaganda.”
“This part of the world is prone to earthquakes,” Al-Faraj adds. “The Iranians say their nuclear reactor in Bushehr is able to withstand an earthquake of up to eight degrees on the Richter Scale, but we’re taking the worst-case scenario and expecting that the outer case of the reactor might break. This could cause contamination in the area.”
A spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said standards regarding the safety and security of nuclear facilities do exist, but it is not compulsory for countries to abide by them. Nevertheless, Iran has asked for IAEA inspectors to help ensure safety standards in the Bushehr reactor, he said.
Anton Khlopkov, deputy director of the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Russia, says facilities such as Bushehr are safer than some might think.
“According to my calculations, there are 23 such reactors in Russia, Europe, China, and under construction in India. All of them are quite safe, so I don’t think there is any threat to Bahrain and other neighboring countries,” he says.
“At the same time, we should bear in mind that because of lack of experience, in the first few years it will not be Iranians but mostly Russians who will operate and manage the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, when it becomes operational.”
As to other nuclear facilities in Iran, Khlopkov thinks Iran must expand its cooperation with the IAEA and with the international community on safety issues.
“Iran started its nuclear research in the 1960s, but since then it hasn’t had many opportunities or facilities to train its specialists in the area of safety,” Khlopkov says.
It should be noted that Arab objection to Iran’s nuclear program has strategic, as well as environmental motives.
Most would agree that even if Iran is indeed pursuing a nuclear weapons program, Tehran is not likely to drop a bomb on its Arab neighbors.
However, the notion of a nuclear Iran is enough to make Middle Eastern leaders ill at ease.
“The Arab leaderships are clearly concerned about Iran’s nuclear program because it sits in the bigger picture of Iran being a more assertive and dominant power in the region,” says Emile El-Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center and co-author of The Arab Gulf States in the Shadow of the Iranian Nuclear Challenge.
From 2002 until 2005 Arab leaders have been careful in their public statements about Iran, and expressed what El-Hokayem calls an “uneasy but calculated restraint” regarding the nuclear program.
But since the end of 2005, and especially in the past few months, Arab leaders have been more vocal in their criticism of Iran, he notes.
“This, in part, has been the product of a more belligerent tone coming from Tehran, with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad as president,” he says.
The recent round of fighting in Lebanon has also given rise to fears that Iran is emboldening the Shi’ite community in the Middle East, something that traditional Arab leaderships find troublesome.
“At the same time, they can’t afford to antagonize Iran,” El-Hokayem adds. “It will always be an important power in the region.”
When it comes to the people in the street, the attitude to Iran’s nuclear program is quite different.
Tariq Khonji, a journalist in Bahrain, has been covering the environmental impact of Iran’s nuclear program for his paper, Gulf Daily News. Most Bahrainis are ignorant of the potential hazards this program poses, he says.
Others are aware of the dangers, but nevertheless support the program because they view the issue politically. They support Iran because it is a Muslim country that is proudly defying the United States, Khonji says.
El-Hokayem agrees that at the level of the Arab street, there seems to be considerable support for Iran’s foreign policy, including the nuclear program.
Whether environmental concerns outweigh the strategic factor, or vice versa, depends very much on the country.
“For Kuwait or Qatar there’s no doubt it’s more environmental,” El-Hokayem says. “For others, like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it’s more political.
“A nuclear-armed Iran is not likely to bomb them, but it will feel more emboldened and in a way it will be the big bully in the region. This is their concern. It’s not the use of nuclear weapons. It’s the secondary effect.”
Meanwhile, as the international community is tiptoeing around the Iranian issue to find a diplomatic solution, governments of Gulf countries are not sitting idly by waiting for a crisis to happen.
The Bahraini government, together with a London-based think tank, recently hosted a conference entitled The Dangers and Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation in the Gulf Region.
Also, marine experts are drawing up an emergency action plan in case of a nuclear mishap.
Capt. Abdelmumin Al-Janahi, director of the Bahrain-based Marine Emergency Mutual Aid Agency (MEMAC), says the Iranians have been quite cooperative and are aware of their responsibilities in this respect. He rules out any political undertones of this task force.
“We are only dealing with the technical side of the environment, whether it’s an oil spill, a chemical threat or any other type of threat to the region,” he says. “Politically, we’re not involved by any means.”
In the diplomatic arena, Arab countries have no power to stop Iran’s nuclear program, even if they wish to do so, El-Hokayem believes.
“They are small players in this great game. Those who have the power to alter Iran’s nuclear calculations are primarily the Europeans, Russians, Chinese and Americans.”