Iran’s heavy water reactor near the central city of Arak will likely begin operating in 2014, according to a new report by the Institute for Science and International Security. U.N. Security Council resolutions dating back to 2006 have urged Iran to stop construction on the Arak reactor because it could open another potential route to nuclear weapons aside from enriching uranium. David Albright and Christina Walrond warn that the reactor’s operation could “needlessly complicate negotiations and increase the risk of military strikes.”
The reactor could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for about two nuclear weapons a year. But the report also notes that Iran has no declared plans to build the necessary separation plant to process the plutonium. Tehran has claimed its reactors are for generating electricity and medical research. The following are excerpts with a link to the full report at the end.
Despite the delays and problems in procuring essential equipment abroad and making fuel domestically, Iran is currently expected to finish the Arak reactor. However, additional delays in commissioning are expected. In any case, the reactor is widely viewed as unnecessary. Sufficient medical isotopes—Iran’s stated justification for the reactor— can be produced in the Tehran Research Reactor or obtained via international commercial markets. Iran has also recently announced its siting of a second research reactor, which would also produce medical isotopes. More importantly, the Arak reactor’s operation would open a second potential route to nuclear weapons for Iran, in this case via plutonium. The first route is its centrifuge program that could make highly enriched uranium. Operating the Arak reactor would heighten concerns that Iran aims to build nuclear weapons. Its operation would needlessly complicate negotiations and increase the risk of military strikes.
Iran has stated that its IR-40 heavy water reactor, located near the city of Arak, will begin operating in 2014. This reactor has been under construction since June 2004 and development work goes back at least another decade. The IR-40 reactor is designed to produce 40 megawatts thermal (MWth) of power and use natural uranium oxide fuel that Iran is producing at the Esfahan conversion and fuel fabrication facilities.
United Nations Security Council resolutions, the first of which dates to 2006, have called for Iran to halt construction of this reactor. The reactor poses a notable proliferation threat because it can produce significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium –about 9-10 kilograms annually or enough for about two nuclear weapons each year. Before it could use any of this plutonium in a nuclear weapon, however, Iran would first have to separate it from the irradiated fuel. Iran has no declared plans to separate plutonium from the irradiated Arak fuel, although it has not agreed to forgo separating plutonium. If it decided to create a secret plutonium separation program, it would also need to divert the irradiated fuel, which would be detected relatively quickly by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Nonetheless, suspicions remain that after the reactor operates, Iran will overtly or covertly build a plant to separate plutonium produced in this reactor. Although the reactor still will require significant work before it operates, Iran reported to the IAEA during the last Design Inventory Verification (DIV) visit in May 2013 that pre-commissioning of the reactor using dummy fuel assemblies and light water will begin in the fourth quarter of 2013 and commissioning using real fuel assemblies and heavy water would begin in the first quarter of 2014, with the start-up planned for the third quarter of 2014…