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Iran’s invisible opportunity via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Amory B. Lovins

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And the areas that could do the most to keep Iran from drifting back towards the nuclear path? Energy efficiency and renewables.

Legendary possibilities. At the eye of the storm over the Iran agreement is a zone of silence—an almost unnoticed opportunity to raise the odds of success. On the Iranian side, wisely using the period of restrictions on potential military nuclear activities could help Iran shift its domestic el­ec­tricity priorities from a failed nuclear power program to a world-class, faster-to-implement, and vastly cheaper program that combines energy efficiency, modern renewables, and advances in the electrical grid. By weakening the domestic case for nuclear power, this approach could help remove uncertainty about Iran’s continuing domestic nuclear activities (however benign they may allegedly be, such as the creation of medical radioisotopes for radiation therapy). Importantly, that would clear some of the fog around Iran’s nuclear program. This in turn would isolate bomb-seekers and allow outside intelligence and monitoring efforts to focus on needles instead of haystacks.

Modernizing Iran’s electricity investments could also reduce the risk of renewed sanc­tions, reward and reinforce political moderation, enhance Iran’s prosperity and energy independence, bolster national pride, and—since the same logic applies to neigh­boring coun­tries already making similar energy shifts for economic reasons—help stabilize the region by reversing an incipient Gulf nuclear arms race. More broadly, it could even help guard the global nonproliferation regime from dangerously permissive interpre­ta­tions by updating the purpose of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT’s) Article IV, which enshrines signatories’ “inalienable right” to the exclusively peaceful use of nuclear energy. Thus, a speedy alignment of Iranian domestic electricity investments with new economic realities could advance the security and economic interests of Iran, Israel, the Arab Gulf states, America and its P5+1 partners, and the world. It could strengthen Iran’s global integration, political evolution, and national stature without compromising others’ similar goals.

Key Iranian officials already publicly favor this approach to their nation’s energy needs, and the technologies are ready and the vendors eager. Indeed, the “United States Assistance to Developing Countries” portion of a 1978 US law called the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act requires such assistance from the United States. And encouragingly, a similar shift already helped to defuse a nuclear arms race between Argentina and Brazil over the past quarter-century. As those two countries evolved from military dictatorships to democracies, their energy priorities allowed them to achieve leadership in renewables and leave their nuclear capabilities nakedly uneconomic, isolated, and obsolete—helping to suppress any lingering temptations.
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On the supply side, Iran enjoys Arizona-like sun, vast empty lands, high geothermal potential, and significant opportunities for small hydro projects and waste-to-energy facilities, among other renewable assets. Iran’s average windspeed is also equivalent to that of the so-called “wind belt” of the Midwestern United States, and Iran’s exceptional wind power sites can economically provide more than 30 gigawatts. Consequently, Iran’s New England-sized, 70-gigawatt grid could quickly shift from three-quarter gas- and one-quarter oil-fired generation (plus 10 gigawatts of less reliable hydropower) to modern renew­ables.

How quickly?

To give an idea, take a look at another dry, sunny country at a similar latitude. Portugal, with 22 percent of Iran’s 2014 economy, 13 percent of its population, and 6 percent of its area, doubled its use of renewablesIran’s nuclear disappointment. In contrast, Iranian nuclear power has failed. Pre-Revolutionary internal critiques of the Shah’s nuclear power ambitions as a Western-inspired extravagance have proven correct. Iran spent a near-record $11 billion to build, in 36 years, one cobbled-together power reactor that supplied just 1.5 percent of its electricity last year. Iran’s homebrewed enrichment cost about an eighth of a billion dollars per year above the market price of enrichment from a dozen supplier countries (even before that price fell by half in the past five years). Sanctions triggered by the Iran nuclear program’s ambiguous nature—Is it for building weapons? For peaceful energy, medicine, and research? Both sets of uses?—cost Iran at least $100 billion, and maybe even $500 billion. By diverting capital, it left the hydrocarbon core of Iran’s economy in a shambles. Obsessive nuclear invest­ments thus hob­bled Iran’s quest for a more diverse, resilient, and independent energy system.

And Iran’s dubiously safe reactor sits at a tectonic-plate junction whose earthquakes could readily exceed the plant’s magnitude 8 design basis. Rising Iranian safety concerns are shared by neighbors downwind, including many Arab capitals and Saudi Arabia’s eastern oil zone. These concerns are shared by the Gulf Cooperation Council; tellingly, Iran has not joined the international regime governing liability for accidents.

Across the Gulf, states that didn’t follow Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain in dropping nuclear power plans after Fukushima are increasingly reluctant to emulate the purchase order by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for four South Korean reactors. (That project’s safeguards against proliferation have been touted as the “gold standard,” but they’re flawed, and even more fundamentally, the whole project lacks a sound business case; the reactors were ordered before serious analysis of modern alternatives.) The original $20-billion cost estimate is now about $32 to $40 billion and rising—before it’s known whether Korea’s fake-safety-certificates scandal affects UAE reactors.
[…] in seven years—from 32 percent of Portugal’s electricity in 2007 to 64 percent in 2014. And during Portugal’s significant 2005 drought, when hydropower faltered, the country still managed to get 15 percent of its electrical generation from non-hydro renewables. The logical implication is that Iran could similarly do a lot to boost its renewable energy sector without further reliance on its unreliable hydropower. Dry years tend to be great for power from the sun and, often, the wind.

Renewables are already a modest but vibrant and fast-growing part of Iran’s policy to free up gas and oil for export. Urban air pollution, growing civil-society and small-business pressures, energy security, price stability, climate pro­tec­­tion, and drought (favoring renewables over traditional power plants that need water) add urgency. As Iran’s Energy Minister Rostam Qasemisaid in 2012, “Gradual reduction of oil consumption on the one hand, and a revolution­ary and swift move toward using renewable energies on the other hand, are the only appropriate mechanisms which can help the country.”

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