Iran is now probably the most dangerous place to work in nuclear engineering. In mid-January came news of the car-bombing execution of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, deputy director for commercial affairs at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.
Over the past few years, half a dozen Iranian engineers and scientists linked to Iran's nuclear programme have been killed or injured in assassination attempts.
Two separate bomb attacks in November 2010 killed Shahid Beheshti University's nuclear engineering faculty member Majid Shahriari, and injured professor Fereidoun Abbasi. Abbasi had been named in UN security council resolution 1747 as being ‘involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities’, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper.
Guardian reports also suggest that the killings of Tehran university particle physicist Massoud Ali Mohammadi in January 2010, and Darioush Rezaeinejad in July 2011, had to do with their supposed links to Iran's nuclear programme (although in both cases the link remains unclear).
The Guardian also suggests that Ardeshir Hosseinpour, who worked at Iran's Esfahan research facility, died in mysterious circumstances—possibly foul play—in 2007.
Other Iranian nuclear scientists have faced hardship. Shahram Amiri, a researcher at Malek Ashtar university of defence technology, disappeared on a trip to Saudi Arabia in June 2009, turned up in Washington DC the next year, and then returned to Iran. He claims he was kidnapped; the US denied it; press reports suggested that he defected and was an informant; since then, press reports have suggested that he was imprisoned and tortured after his return.
The identity of those responsible for each attack, and its motivation, are uncertain. But the big picture is not. Nuclear scientists and engineers in Iran are being targeted. The start-up of uranium enrichment at the Fordow site in January will not help reduce tension.
The Iranian government says that its nuclear intentions are entirely civil. However, it has a long history of blocking IAEA inspections, and in November 2011 the IAEA concluded that Iran had been working on activities ‘relevant to the development’ of a nuclear bomb up to 2003, and may still be doing so now, to a more limited degree.
Iran's lack of clarity on its aims has threatened the region for some time, and now appears to be threatening its own scientists. Whether or not they are working on military projects, Iran's nuclear engineers should be protected from assassination, at the very least. If they—or others—are found to have broken nonproliferation rules, then the right thing to do in my opinion is to punish them in line with the procedures and penalties of international law.
Since the Manhattan project, nuclear engineers and scientists have been swept up into national projects, for good or for bad. During the cold war, US president Dwight Eisenhower criticised the doubtful ethics of what he called the military-industrial complex. Since then, the civil nuclear power industry has done much to separate itself from the military, and has established an honourable reputation.
However, as we see now, the legacy—and the threat—remains. A couple of years after the end of the war, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists started its 'countdown to midnight' to indicate the proximity of the threat of nuclear holocaust. In January, it moved the clock a minute forward (to 23:55) to reflect lack of progress on climate change and nuclear weapons control.
Will Dalrymple is editor of Nuclear Engineering International magazine. This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine