Friday, July 17, 2015

Vox's "Plutonium Plant": Explainer Site Still Doesn't Understand Arak

Is this what a plutonium plant looks like? (Image: Creative Curiosity)

On the heels of the recently announced historic multilateral agreement over Iran's nuclear program, self-described explanatory journalism outlet has posted a number of infographics to explain certain parameters of the deal. The images were produced by Vox's talented graphics editor Javier Zarracina, who's previously worked at the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe. The text accompanying the graphics, however, appears to derive largely from previous Vox posts, most likely ones penned by the site's content manager Max Fisher.

While the post is not as error-laden as some of the site's previous articles and supposedly explanatory maps, one mistake is glaring and deserves both attention and correction.

In its copious coverage of the Iranian nuclear program, Vox - and Mr. Fisher in particular - routinely refers to Iran's heavy water research reactor at Arak as a "plutonium plant," a description that is not only factually inaccurate but also deliberately alarmist. The new post, attributed solely to Zarracina, is unfortunately no different.

In its brief section on the nuclear facilities Iran will continue to operate under deal and the specific restrictions agreed to pertaining to these facilities, Zarracina produced the following map:

(Image: Javier Zarracina / Vox)

The bold text at the top of the map above is misleading. Iran currently has 18 nuclear facilities and nine additional locations (all hospitals) where nuclear material is used. All of these facilities - not just three, as Vox says - will continue to operate. All of them have long been declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and all are under agency safeguards and open to regular monitoring and inspection. At least four times a year for the past dozen years, the IAEA has consistently continued to "verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at these facilities" to military and weaponization programs.

The three facilities Zarracina focuses on, however, are especially important and that figure centrally in the parameters of the agreement. Two - Natanz and Fordow - are operational enrichment facilities; the other is a nuclear research reactor still under construction at the Arak complex.

In his explanation of the limitations Iran has accepted on its nuclear program, Zarracina claims the following:
The Arak facility matters because Iran has used it to develop plutonium, another nuclear fuel that can be used for energy or for a weapons program. Iran will be required to restructure its plutonium plant at Arak such that it will only make energy-grade plutonium, and will ship out its spent plutonium. The Arak facility will also be monitored.
Each of Zarracina's three sentences contains either egregious errors or is explicitly misleading. His "explanation" is, as a result, just the opposite - an embarrassing exercise in ignorance and disinformation.

Let's take the sentences one by one:

"The Arak facility matters because Iran has used it to develop plutonium, another nuclear fuel that can be used for energy or for a weapons program."

For starters, the reactor at Arak remains under construction and has never been operational; therefore, Iran has never - ever - "used it to develop plutonium." The reactor has in fact never been "used" to do anything. It's never even been turned on.

Zarracina is clearly confused as to what facilities Arak contains, what those facilities do, and what Iran has done with these facilities. At Iran's Arak complex, two facilities are relevant in this discussion: one is the IR-40 heavy water research reactor, the other is a heavy water production plant (HWPP). There is no such thing as a "plutonium plant" on the site.

The half-built IR-40 reactor is under full IAEA safeguards and is visited regularly by inspectors; the production plant, however, is not under safeguards and thus not legally subject to inspections. This is less alarming than it might sound and here's why: heavy water is not nuclear material, it merely acts as a moderator and coolant in nuclear reactors that use natural uranium rather than enriched uranium. Still, Iran voluntarily provided IAEA inspectors access to HWPP in August 2011 and again in December 2013, even though this exceeded Iran's legal obligations to the agency.

The IR-40 reactor at Arak - like all reactors - produces energy, not nuclear fuel. It runs on nuclear fuel. And once that fuel is used, it becomes irradiated and must be extracted from the reactor and replaced with new fuel.

All reactors that use uranium (natural or enriched) as fuel produce plutonium as a waste product. Ever heard of nuclear waste? Yeah, that includes plutonium, which hypothetically can be used to produce nuclear weapons. The amount of weapons-capable plutonium produced as a byproduct in the spent nuclear fuel of a heavy water reactor is usually more than what naturally occurs in the spent fuel from light water reactors, which run on enriched uranium and use normal water as coolant. This is why the Arak reactor in particular is considered by some to be an unacceptable proliferation risk.

But there's more: weapons-grade plutonium present in irradiated (used) fuel must be extracted through a process known as reprocessing before it can be used for anything else. Iran has no reprocessing facility and has for years agreed never to build one. The new Iran deal simply reaffirms this past decision.

As nuclear expert Martin Sevior has explained, "Going the plutonium route to nuclear weapons is more difficult than using highly enriched uranium" because Iran "would have to build a sophisticated reprocessing plant which would be very hard to conceal while constructing, and requires even greater skill to conceal while operating." Considering Iran has the single most scrutinized nuclear energy program on the planet and is constantly spied on by its adversaries, the idea that it would undertake this route is comical.

Vox's writers seem to think that once a heavy water reactor is switched on, out pops weapons-grade plutonium, ready to be loaded into the nose cone of a ballistic missile bound for Tel Aviv or Boca Raton. This is not the case.

"Iran will be required to restructure its plutonium plant at Arak such that it will only make energy-grade plutonium, and will ship out its spent plutonium."

Ok, again, there is no such thing as a "plutonium plant at Arak," so that's wrong. As part of the final agreement between Iran and its six negotiating partners, the Arak reactor will be redesigned and rebuilt so that it runs on 3.67% enriched uranium, not natural uranium, and no longer produces weapons-grade plutonium as a waste product. This essentially means Arak will be converted from a heavy water reactor to a hybrid heavy and light water reactor; heavy water will still be used a "coolant, moderator and reflector" with normal water used as a safety measure if necessary.

Once operational, the Arak reactor will be used for "peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production for medical and industrial purposes," just as Iran originally intended.

Zarracina compounds his misunderstanding of what nuclear reactors do and what they produce with the claim that Iran "will ship out its spent plutonium." Reactors don't produce "spent plutonium." They produce energy. They also, as a waste product, produce spent uranium, the substance that actual fuels reactors, which, after irradiation, contains (along with many other radioactive byproducts) both plutonium isotopes Pu-239, which is suitable for weapons, and Pu-241, which is not. Plutonium enriched to more than 97% Pu-239 is dangerous; the more it is contaminated by Pu-241, the less danger it poses. The length of time nuclear fuel stays in a reactor determines how much of each plutonium isotope is leftover once the fuel is used up and removed from the reactor core. The longer the fuel stays in the less Pu-239 there is and the more Pu-241 there is. That's why Pu-239, which is combustible, is referred to as "weapons grade," while Pu-241 is known as "reactor-" or "energy-grade" plutonium. None of this plutonium, in whatever form, is used to fuel reactors; it is the byproduct of fuel, not the fuel itself.

And, again, for this plutonium byproduct to ever be used in a nuclear weapon, it must first be isolated and extracted from the spent fuel through reprocessing, which Iran is incapable of - and not interested in - doing.

"The Arak facility will also be monitored."

Ok, here's an easy one. In simple terms, yes, Zarracina is correct. Arak will be monitored. But this statement is misleading without context. As mentioned already, Arak is already monitored by the IAEA - this is not a new development as a positive consequence of the Iran deal. Zarracina makes it sound like Iran finally agreed to put Arak under IAEA safeguards, but that's not even remotely true.

In truth, even before Hassan Rouhani was elected president, Iran's delegates to the IAEA under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were urging international "nuclear monitors to use powerful new detection technologies to dispel international concern that the Persian Gulf country is seeking to build atomic weapons," reported Bloomberg News. "We always welcome the agency to have more sophisticated equipment, to have more accuracy in their measurements, so that technical matters will not be politicized," Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh said in early June 2013, adding that Iran "won't object to IAEA monitors using new technologies to determine whether plutonium is being extracted from spent fuel at its new reactor in Arak."

Ignoring Facts and Avoiding Responsibility

Whether the blame for these errors (some by commission, some by omission) should fall to Zarracina or Max Fisher or someone else is unclear. Regardless, all of the writers, content creators and editors at Vox have a responsibility not to mislead their readers. Sure, nuclear technology is complex and journalists on deadline don't always have time to study a lot of the details. Still, all of this information is open-source and easy to find. Once errors are pointed out, Vox's editors should do their best to own up to and correct their mistakes and those of their contributors. When it comes to their Iran coverage, this tends not to happen at Vox. Quite the contrary, fact-checking Vox on Iran's nuclear program often results in hostility and dismissal from Vox staff.

At the very least, Vox should immediately stop referring to the research reactor at Arak as a "plutonium plant." This is easy to do: call it what it is and stop misleading readers. Instead, due to either a stubborn allegiance to ignorance or extreme laziness, Vox has continued to misinform it audience about the Iranian nuclear program. Unless facile and faulty explanations are its editorial mission, a widely-read resource like Vox that prides itself on "explaining" things to the less informed should try a little harder at first informing itself.
I got blocked by Yglesias for this tweet.


1 comment:

Juandonjuan said...

Sigh. Information, and an informed readership, leads to questions.
Questions lead to independent thought. Independent thought leads to suspicion of the sources of disinformation- the State(and NonState)NGOs. So the narrative has to fit the lie that has been promoted and disseminated through the Gatekeeper Media outlets. So the major network/news/syndicates come to be seen as complicit, so readers search for alternate sources, but confirmation bias leads to sites like Vox, NPR, Slate etc that don't call out the naked truth on the Emperor's narrative.

Twenty (or less) years later, when the lie is exposed, the response is "what Does It Matter Now?"

Thanks for your work in bringing the other side into view.