Tehran and six world powers are near an agreement on the future of a controversial heavy-water reactor that is under construction in Iran, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said April 19.
Ali Akbar Salehi said that the six countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) had accepted Iran’s proposal to redesign the core of the heavy-water reactor at Arak. He said this would cut the production of plutonium from the reactor but still allow Iran to produce medical isotopes.
A European diplomat familiar with the negotiations said that “there has been no political decision reached about the future of the Arak reactor.” No single issue in the negotiations will be considered resolved until “all of the issues have been dealt with and agreed upon,” he said said in an April 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today.
The issue of the Arak reactor is one that Tehran and the six countries, known as the P5+1, are seeking to resolve in a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The parties have met three times since February. The most recent round took place April 7-9 in Vienna.
The P5+1 is concerned that Iran could use the plutonium produced by the reactor for nuclear weapons although Iran is not known to have the facilities to separate plutonium from spent fuel. Iran claims that the reactor will be used for research and the production of medical isotopes.
Iran and the P5+1 reached a first-phase agreement in November that freezes construction of the reactor for six months while a comprehensive agreement is negotiated. (See ACT, December 2013.) Iran also committed in the November agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action, not to construct a separation facility. Implementation of the initial actions began Jan. 20 and is to last six months. (See ACT, March 2014.)
If the Arak reactor is completed as designed, experts estimate that it would contain quantities of plutonium that, when separated from the spent fuel, would be enough for about two bombs a year. Salehi said the proposed design modification would cut the plutonium production to one-fifth of what it would have been by fueling it with uranium enriched to reactor grade instead of natural uranium.
Reactors that use natural uranium are particularly well suited to plutonium production. Reactors that use enriched uranium produce plutonium that is less suitable for nuclear weapons.
Iran and the P5+1 are scheduled to meet again May 13 in Vienna to continue negotiations on the comprehensive nuclear deal.
According to the joint statement issued by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the P5+1, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the end of the last round of talks on April 9, the parties will move to the “next phase in the negotiations.” Negotiators have held “substantive and detailed discussions” on all of the issues that will be covered in the deal and will now begin to “bridge the gaps” and “work on the concrete elements” of the comprehensive deal, the statement said. (See ACT, April 2014.)
U.S. officials have said they hope to reach a final deal by July 20, when the first-phase agreement comes to an end. If an agreement is not reached, the interim deal can be extended by mutual consent of the two sides.
Meanwhile, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on implementation of the first-phase agreement found that Iran is continuing to follow through on its commitments.
In January, the IAEA began issuing special monthly reports on Iran’s compliance with certain aspects of the November agreement. These reports are in addition to the agency’s quarterly reports on Tehran’s nuclear program.
The April 17 report confirmed that Iran had completed the dilution of half of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium to an enrichment level of less than 5 percent, the level typically used in power reactors. Iran agreed to complete the dilution within three months of the parties beginning to implement the agreement.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in an April 17 press briefing that following the IAEA confirmation that Iran had completed the required dilution, the Treasury Department “facilitated the release of a $450 million installment of Iran’s frozen funds.”
As part of the first-phase agreement, the P5+1 agreed that, over the six months of the deal, it would release $4.2 billion in Iranian assets that are tied up in foreign banks. Including the April installment, about $2.5 billion has already been released.
The remaining half of the 20 percent-enriched stockpile is being converted to a powder form that can be used to make fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. Iran has until July 20 to complete this process.
The IAEA report also said that Iran has not completed a facility that will convert uranium enriched to less than 5 percent from a gas to a powder that is used to make fuel for power reactors. Under the first phase of the deal, Iran committed to convert all of the reactor-grade enriched uranium gas it produced over the course of the six months of the agreement to a powder form.
According to the IAEA’s November quarterly report, the facility was to begin operations in December. But Iran did not complete the facility in time to begin operations by that date. According to the April 17 report, Tehran informed the IAEA that the facility would be commissioned on April 9, but then put off commissioning the plant. The report said that Tehran did not give the agency a new date for the beginning of operations.
The first-phase agreement does not specify a date by which Iran must begin operating the facility.
At the April 17 press briefing, Harf said that, “to this point, all sides have kept the commitments” made in the Joint Plan of Action.