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Concern about Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor: Just an Excuse or a Reality?

By Hassan Beheshtipour (source: Iran Review)



In this article, the author aims to answer the simple, but very important question that whether Iran's nuclear plant in Arak should be a cause of concern for the Western states. The Arak plant is located close to the city of Arak, some 290 km southwest of the capital city, Tehran. It is among 17 nuclear sites that Iran is currently operating under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The plant consists of two main parts:

A) Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor

As the useful lifespan of Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) almost reached its end and the equipment and systems working there gradually became obsolete, like all other similar reactors in the world, Iran decided to find a replacement for that research reactor. In addition, domestic demand in Iran for various radio drugs that are used for a variety of diagnostic and therapeutic purposes as well as demand for radioisotopes that are used in various fields of industry and research kept rising. The rise in demand came despite various limitations that Iran has been facing even for the provision and procurement of such radio isotopes from foreign sources. As a result, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran made up its mind to build a new research reactor in order to replace the Tehran Research Reactor. To achieve that goal, a general plan was made for the construction of Arak research reactor, which is of heavy water type and capable of generating 40 megawatts of power. The reactor is known as IR40.

The basic part of the project was finished in 2002 and construction operations got underway in 2004. Paragraph 35 of the last report presented to the IAEA's Board of Governors by Director General of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, Yukiya Amano, says, “In a letter dated 25 August 2013, Iran informed the Agency that ‘based on the practical progress of construction work’ the previously indicated ‘start-up’ date for the IR-40 Reactor was ‘not achievable, so it cannot be the first quarter of 2014.’” Construction of the power plant will most probably end in the fall of 2014 and its final commissioning has been scheduled for early 2015. In his latest report dated August 28, 2013, Amano has noted that Iran has built 10 nuclear fuel assemblies all of which have been stockpiled at the manufacturing facility. In Paragraph 47 of the same report, Amano has informed the IAEA Board of Governors that: “On 17 and 18 August 2013, the Agency carried out an inspection and a DIV at FMP and confirmed the ongoing manufacture of pellets for the IR-40 Reactor using natural UO2. As indicated above (Paragraph 34), since the Director General’s previous report Iran has started to manufacture fuel assemblies containing nuclear material for the IR-40 Reactor.”

B) Arak heavy water production plant

Arak heavy water production plant was inaugurated by the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on August 26, 2006. According to Gholamreza Aqazadeh, the then head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the plant had an original production capacity of eight tons. Upon inauguration, its capacity reached 16 tons of heavy water with a degree of purity of 99.8 percent. The Arak heavy water production project is a hallmark of Iran's nuclear advances and plays a determining role in meeting the country’s need to nuclear material for medical purposes such as control of various kinds of cancer and AIDS. The heavy water produced there can be also used as coolant for other heavy water reactors. As this industrial unit opened, Iran became the ninth country in the world with necessary equipment to produce heavy water. Argentina, Canada, India and Norway are among the biggest producers and exporters of heavy water in the world.

Analysis: Why Western countries are concerned about Arak project?

As Iran has frequently noted, the main goal behind the implementation of the heavy water research reactor project was to produce radio drugs that are used to treat intractable diseases such as various kinds of cancer. Such drugs are needed by about 850,000 Iranians every year. The plant is also meant to produce various radioisotopes which can be used in various fields of industry and agriculture. The Western media, however, have frequently claimed that Iran can reprocess the spent fuel of the reactor to separate plutonium. They have alleged that eight kilograms of this nuclear material is sufficient to be mounted on a missile warhead and turn it into a nuclear warhead. Mass media in the West have been launching a heavy propaganda campaign around this project claiming that Arak facility will be ready at the end of 2016 to be used for the production of enough plutonium which would be, in turn, sufficient to make one or two nuclear bombs. Since 1992, the falsehood of such claims and invalidity of dates given for Iran's nuclear steps has been frequently proven. One clear reason for the falsehood and invalidity of such claims is that they have never come true.

Reasons that refute Western countries’ concerns about Arak facility

1. To produce plutonium from the spent fuel, a special facility built on the basis of cutting-edge technology for the separation of plutonium from nuclear refuse is needed. Iran lacks such an advanced facility.

2. To produce plutonium out of nuclear waste, “hot cells,” which are big storage facilities with special covering are needed. Iran does not have such cells.

3. For a country like Iran, which has already mastered the technology used for the enrichment of uranium, it would not be very difficult to build a nuclear bomb. To manufacture a nuclear bomb, it will just suffice to repeat the process of uranium enrichment from lower levels to over 90 percent purity, which is needed to make a nuclear bomb. However, safe maintenance of the nuclear bomb in order to prevent its detonation and destruction of the country’s facilities, and even more importantly, using such a hypothetical bomb at the right time and the right place against the enemy forces, needs very complicated and more advanced technology. The Western countries are well aware that Iran neither possesses such technology, nor has it been ever trying to obtain it.

4. Arak nuclear plant is under strict supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Director General of the IAEA Mr. Amano, and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, recently signed an agreement in Tehran according to which Iran has voluntarily allowed the IAEA to inspect its heavy water facility in Arak just in the same way that Arak Research Reactor has been under the oversight of the IAEA since 2006. Although production of heavy water, per se, is not considered as part of a country’s nuclear activities, Iran has voluntarily allowed the IAEA to inspect this facility in order to strip the Western countries of any possible excuse to mount pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Untold realities about Arak nuclear plant

Now, the important question that is posed is why a nuclear plant, which is almost two years away from full commissioning, and is being inspected by the IAEA in every respect, should be a source of concern for the Western countries?

It should be noted that Arak nuclear plant is located on the surface of the ground and is quite accessible for all kinds of enemy warplanes. Therefore, in an extreme case, it would be easier to destroy this plant than the underground uranium enrichment site in Fordow, which is used by Iran to produce enriched uranium under the supervision of the IAEA.

Ephraim Asculai, a senior research associate at the London-based Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), has noted that inauguration of Arak nuclear plant will cause immunity for Iran's nuclear energy program; a proposition which is totally unacceptable to the Western states. Therefore, he added, concerns about the Arak nuclear plant mostly seem to be of a tactical and military nature than being related to the proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction. (1)

Now, why the French Foreign Minister [Laurent Fabius] should use such a plant as an excuse to balk at an agreement that could have been reached between two negotiating partiers [in recent Geneva nuclear talks] and would have been a major stride toward confidence building between the two sides? To answer that question, it is noteworthy that the other negotiating parties may have already reached an agreement among them in order to play the “good cop, bad cop” game in a bid to take more concessions from Iran.

Alternatively, one may guess that the hefty amounts of money that France has received from Saudi Arabia have provided Paris with good incentive to engage in such a dirty game. One may even believe that when the Israelis saw that the United States Secretary of State John Kerry is not willing to give in to their illegitimate demands, they have asked their old friend, Laurent Fabius, to resort to childish excuses [to prevent a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group]. However, in doing so, the French foreign minister has also tarnished the political credit of France in the eyes of the Iranian people.

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Acting on the erroneous assumption that its economic sanctions are bringing Iran to its knees, the West is just losing opportunities. The Western countries are ignoring the fact that if they lose the opportunity for reaching an agreement with Rouhani-Zarif team, it is not clear whether such an experience could be repeated in the future. The forthcoming negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group, which have been scheduled for November 20, can be considered a turning point in this regard because in those talks, the West will come to realize that such illogical behavior and childish quibbling cannot continue forever.


(1) Serge Michel, Le Monde, Paris, Tuesday, November 12, 2013

About the author: A researcher, documentary producer, and expert on nuclear issues, Hassan Beheshtipour received his BA in Trade Economics from Tehran University. His research topics span from US and Russian foreign policy to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.

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