Monday, November 11, 2013

What an Al-Monitor Analyst Gets Wrong about Arak

The Arak IR-40 Heavy Water Reactor in Iran

In a new piece over at Al-Monitor, Iranian-born Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar commends the blocking of a preliminary nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius over the issue of Iran's continuing construction of the Qatran Complex, a heavy water facility near Arak, a city southwest of Tehran.

But it is riddled with the factual errors and decontextualized conjecture that have long been a hallmark of Mr. Javedanfar's analysis.

This time around, it appears Mr. Javedanfar is a bit confused as to the difference between Iran's two facilities at Arak. One is the IR-40 heavy water research reactor, the other is a heavy water production plant. The half-built reactor is under IAEA safeguards and is visited regularly by inspectors; the production plant is not under safeguards and thus not legally subject to inspections. This is less alarming than it might seem as heavy water is not nuclear material; it merely acts as a moderator in nuclear reactors that use natural uranium rather than enriched uranium.

When Mr. Javedanfar, writing clearly about the IR-40 reactor and not the production plant, claims that "the Iranian regime has not allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the site since 2011" and that the "IAEA has since had to rely on satellite images to assess developments regarding the site," he is simply wrong. That he then states that this "reinforces concern and urgency" demonstrates a distinct lack of clarity on his part as to what risks actually exist or do not exist.

Here's why:

What Mr. Javedanfar is actually referring to (though he doesn't seem to know it) is the production plant at Arak, not the reactor. Iran voluntarily allowed IAEA access to the production plant in 2011. According to the most recent safeguards report, the Arak reactor site however was visited by IAEA monitors on August 7, 2013, who reported that a number of major components, such as "control room equipment, the refuelling machine and reactor cooling pumps" had yet to be installed. Another report will be issued soon, which means inspectors have also been there since.

The reactor, which Mr. Javedanfar never mentions is not operational and may not be for another year, is not in itself a proliferation risk. Plutonium is produced as a byproduct of running the reactor, and must be separated out from irradiated fuel and reprocessed to weapons-grade material before it poses any actual danger.

Still, Mr. Javedanfar writes that the "Arak heavy water reactor... could produce plutonium to make a bomb while the talks continue," which is misleading and wholly speculative at best, intimating as he does that once the Arak reactor is switched on, weapons-grade plutonium pops out.

First, talks are not expected to continue for years to come. With the reactor not yet up and running (it's projected to come online in mid-2014, but will most likely be delayed as it has in the past), the timeframe on Arak is an important factor in determining the potential (and, at this stage, totally hypothetical) risk it poses.

As Daryl G. Kimball and Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association explained this past summer:
[T]he reactor at Arak would need to be operational for perhaps up to a year before the plutonium could be extracted. Even then, Iran does not have a reprocessing facility for separating the plutonium to produce weapons-usable material, having revised its declaration to the IAEA regarding the Arak site in 2004. The revision eliminated plans for a reprocessing facility at the site. Tehran maintains that it does not intend to build a plant to separate plutonium from the irradiated fuel that the reactor will produce.
By this measure, taken with Mr. Javedanfar's claim, talks would need to continue without progress for at least another year and half, perhaps two years, for Iran to even begin extracting plutonium from spent fuel. That's mid-2015 at the earliest.

Plus, Iran can't even reprocess that extracted plutonium into weapons-grade material because it doesn't have the facilities to do so.

This past weekend, Kimball told The Guardian that, if anything, "Arak represents a long-term proliferation risk not a near-term risk and it can be addressed in the final phase of negotiations," adding, "France and the other... powers would be making a mistake if they hold up an interim deal that addresses more urgent proliferation risks over the final arrangements regarding Arak."

Yet Mr. Javedanfar calls the blocking of a preliminary deal by the French "fair and logical."

Perhaps if he had a better grasp on the facts about Arak, he would come to a different conclusion. Then again, maybe not. After all, a TIME magazine headline from last month says it all: "If Iran Can Get This Reactor Online, Israel May Not Be Able to Bomb It".

That, it would appear, is the real risk for Israel and its analysts.



Following a meeting in Tehran between IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, it was agreed that Iran would provide "relevant information and managed access to the Heavy Water Production Plant" at Arak.

This is a voluntary, confidence-building measure taken by Iran in an effort "to strengthen their cooperation and dialogue aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme through the resolution of all outstanding issues that have not already been resolved by the IAEA."

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The above piece contains excerpts of another post on the current diplomatic impasse over Iran's nuclear program, which I hope to have posted later today.



November 14, 2013 - In a recent interview with The Real News Network, nuclear expert Robert Kelley debunked a number of common myths associated with the Iranian nuclear program, including about the Arak facility.

Kelley, now an Associated Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)'s Nuclear Weapons Project, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme, is a bona fide authority on these matters. Here's his bio:
Mr. Kelley is a veteran of over 35 years in the US Department of Energy nuclear weapons complex, most recently at Los Alamos. He worked in research and engineering before turning to information analysis in the 1980s. He managed the centrifuge and plutonium metallurgy programs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and later was Director of the Department of Energy Remote Sensing Laboratory, the premier US nuclear emergency response organization. He was also seconded by the USDOE to the IAEA where he served twice as a Director of the nuclear inspections in Iraq in 1992 and again in 2001.
And here's the clip:



Anonymous said...

I think it was on that I read that Arak will produce Pu-240, -241 and -242, but not Pu-239, the stuff a plutonium bomb needs. Can you verify this information?

Nima Shirazi said...

@Anonymous -

It really depends on how long nuclear fuel stays in the reactor (once it's operational). The Arak reactor - like all nuclear reactors - will produce plutonium as part of its spent fuel, which could be extracted and reprocessed into weapons-grade material.

For this to happen, though - meaning, first off, that the vast majority of plutonium present in the spent fuel is the isotope Plutonium-239 (and thereby able to be reprocessed in a facility, it should be mentioned, that Iran doesn't even have and isn't building) - the spent fuel would have to changed out regularly.

The longer the fuel stays in the reactor the more neutrons it can capture, thus altering the chemical make-up of the material and making it incapable of being reprocessed into bomb-making material.

Effectively, by not changing out the fuel often, the plutonium that is created continues to "cook" and becomes "dirty" and loses its ability to pose a proliferation threat. Only spent fuel with less that 7% Plutonium-240 is able to be reprocessed to weapons-grade.

Because the IAEA regularly monitors the Arak reactor, it would be immediately apparent if Iran were regularly changing out its fuel and stockpiling the spent material. Again, it has no means of reprocessing it, but either way, the inspectors' mere presence and the safeguards already in place guard against any sort of breakout capability in that regard.