Thoughts On An Iranian Explosion

According to the Iranian News Agency, there was an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Kharg that killed four workers on Saturday. The accident, according to the report, was set off by high pressure in a central boiler. A Reuters report, citing a local governor, agreed on basic details but fingered a gas leak for the blast.

Iran’s National Petrochemical Co. has ambitious plans to develop the sector involving the construction of dozens of interconnected world-scale petrochemical plants. If that wasn’t enough, NPC buys designs from foreign engineering firms, but undertakes the construction all by itself. Partly this is due to sanctions against Iran; partly it is because one of the objectives of its development program is to create domestic capabilities for sophisticated engineering.

The complexity of the development project plus the go-it-alone approach has led to countless delays and troubles for the Iranian petrochemical sector. This is a big reason why we are still waiting for a supply driven downturn in the petrochemical industry that was supposed to occur several years ago.

When I first heard about the disaster, I figured that it might be related to Iran’s struggles in petrochemicals. After all, it is common for chemical plant explosions to occur when they are being taken offline for maintenance. The change of state of startup and idling are dangerous periods for plant operators. Similarly, most airline accidents happen when aircraft are taking off or landing. It seemed plausible to me that the accident occurred while some new plant was starting up.

That reasonable hypothesis, however, doesn’t seem supported by the actual evidence.

Figuring out what is going on in the Iranian petrochemical sector always involves a little detective work. Years ago, NPC had plans to build an ethylene cracker and an ethylene glycol plant in Kharg. However, NPC decided, because of feedstock availability, to build it in Assaluyeh instead. Coincidentally, that plant seems to have officially started up yesterday.

So, there is no plant that I know of that is starting up about now in Kharg. So what could the reports be referring to? There is a methanol plant that started up in Kharg years ago. Also, the mainstream media tends to throw around the word “petrochemical” broadly. The term could be referring any number of natural gas and petroleum processing plants on Kharg Island.

Author: Alex Tullo

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