Iran’s Heavy-Water Reactor: A Plutonium Bomb Factory

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Note for Reporters by Robert J. Einhorn
November 9, 2006


  • Robert J. Einhorn, Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies
    Phone: (202) 775-3257
  • Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association
    Phone: (202) 463-8270 x107

Later this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors will address Iran’s request for technical assistance from the agency to help ensure safety at its heavy-water production facility at Arak. The request sounds innocuous enough. But the origins of Iran’s Arak project should give board members pause.

Iran’s efforts to acquire a large, 40-megawatt heavy water-moderated “research” reactor are not new. During the 1990s, Iran secretly approached at least four nuclear suppliers and sought to purchase such a reactor. Suspicious of Iran’s motives, the governments all turned down the request.

It is not surprising that Iran’s desire to buy a large heavy-water reactor set off alarm bells. Before centrifuge technology for enriching uranium became available from the black market network of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, the plutonium route using heavy-water reactors was the dependable choice for aspiring nuclear-weapon states.

It is not by coincidence that India’s Cirrus reactor, Pakistan’s Khushab reactor, and Israel’s Dimona reactor are all large, heavy-water reactors. Fueled by natural uranium, these reactors don’t require their owners to go the trouble of obtaining enriched uranium fuel—either by making it indigenously or buying safeguarded enriched uranium from abroad. Moreover, when reprocessed, fuel rods irradiated in such reactors yield high-quality, weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea’s infamous 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, while moderated with graphite rather than heavy water, is also fueled with natural uranium. All of these reactors are excellent plutonium bomb factories. That’s why they were acquired.

When the Arak reactor is completed, which the Iranians say could happen as early as 2009, it will be capable of producing enough plutonium for about two bombs a year.

While Iran was turned down in its attempts to buy a complete 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor, it eventually got the technical assistance from abroad necessary to build its own reactor. That is what is being constructed today in Arak.

Iran says its reactor at Arak will be used to produce isotopes for peaceful purposes. Are large, heavy water-moderated reactors needed to conduct legitimate scientific research and produce isotopes for medical, agricultural, and industrial purposes? The answer is no. Much smaller, light-water research reactors are fully satisfactory for the kinds of applications Iran says it is interested in.

Could the reactor Iran is constructing at Arak actually be used to produce isotopes for peaceful purposes? Yes it could. A 12-inch hunting knife also could be used to spread jam on your toast in the morning.

It is noteworthy that France, Germany, and the United Kingdom offered to replace Iran’s 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor with a light-water research reactor. Iran was not interested in that offer.

In promoting its request for IAEA technical assistance for Arak, Iran will undoubtedly play its “right to peaceful uses” card, claiming especially to non aligned states that Western powers are again seeking to deny Iran its rights. But if Iran is genuinely interested in using a research reactor for peaceful purposes, why didn’t it accept or even discuss the European offer?

Considering that Iran’s planned civil nuclear power program is based on light-water technology, it is highly suspicious in the eyes of most experts that Tehran has opted for a heavy-water production facility and a heavy-water “research” reactor. If Iran’s power program were based on heavy-water technology, as is Canada’s program, then producing heavy water indigenously and going the heavy water route for a research reactor would make some sense. But given Iran’s declared civil power plans, its choices at Arak only raise eyebrows.

Recognizing their vulnerability on this point, Iranians once claimed that they were exploring with the Canadians the option of acquiring heavy-water power reactors. However, Canadian authorities told the Department of State that they were unaware that any such discussions had taken place, either with Canadian governmental or industry officials.

The unsettling implications of Iran acquiring and operating a heavy-water reactor have not been lost on the IAEA board, which more than once has called on Iran not to proceed with its heavy-water program at Arak. Iran has ignored the board’s requests.

Iran apparently is requesting IAEA assistance in the safety area, recognizing that requests to make facilities safer are usually hard to turn down. But the issue before the board is not safety; it is whether Iran should proceed with a project that the board itself has regarded with suspicion and called on Iran to suspend.

At its meeting starting November 23, the IAEA board should again call on Iran to suspend both its heavy-water production facility and the heavy-water reactor. It should not approve technical assistance for Arak that would give legitimacy to a project conceived long ago as providing Iran another route to a nuclear weapons capability.

Robert J. Einhorn, currently at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation from 1999 to 2001.