Wednesday, July 13, 2016

More Misleading Reporting on the Iran Deal and 'Heavy Water'

It's not hard to learn what heavy water is, folks. Just look it up.

Nuclear technology is complicated. Explaining the minutiae of enrichment levels, dual-use material, and the legal frameworks of international law and supervision is hard to do. So is good journalism. Deadlines, reader accessibility and editorial demands put a lot of pressure on reporters who cover a range of topics to use shorthand and shirk details.

The combination of the two, therefore, can be deadly. Reporters covering the Iranian nuclear program and, namely, the terms of the multilateral nuclear deal - known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - signed by Iran and six world powers a year ago don't have it easy.

But that's still no excuse for getting basic facts wrong. Errors and misrepresentations, especially in media coverage, have a tremendously negative impact on the public's ability to know the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in reporting about the Iranian nuclear issue, where news and commentary outlets routinely publish egregiously incorrect information without fact-checking or correction.

These mistakes are endemic and bipartisan; supporters of diplomacy with Iran get things wrong almost as often as those avidly pushing for more sanctions and regime change. This is why, for instance, the false narrative that the deal "stopped" Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is so common among deal boosters, despite the fact that Iran was not weaponizing its nuclear energy program in the first place (and therefore there was no "weapon" or "weapons program" to "stop").

A 2013 University of Maryland study found that when media "coverage did address Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities, it did so in a manner that lacked precision, was inconsistent over time, and failed to provide adequate sourcing and context for claims."

Sadly, with the Iran deal now a year old, nothing much has changed.

In a July 12 Foreign Policy dispatch on a failed Republican scheme to pass new sanctions on Iran before the summer recess, senior reporter John Hudson mentioned an effort to ban the United States from purchasing heavy water from Iran.


In an apparent effort to explain an unfamiliar term to his readers, Hudson describes "heavy water" as "a byproduct from the production of nuclear energy." This is incorrect.

Heavy water is actually just a denser form of normal water, containing a hydrogen isotope called deuterium, which acts as both a moderator and coolant in the nuclear fuel process. It is not fissile material. It poses absolutely no danger and has no military capabilities. It can not make bombs, nor is it a necessary component of the bomb-making process. Heavy water can literally be consumed just a regular H20, although that would be a particularly pricey way to quench one's thirst.

Because heavy water is so benign, the material is not typically subject to IAEA monitoring or safeguards.

The reason heavy water is even a topic of conversation when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program is because, before the JCPOA was signed, Iran was in the process of constructing a heavy water research reactor at its Arak facility. Heavy water reactors are fueled using natural uranium rather than enriched uranium. These reactors are said to pose a potentially enhanced proliferation threat due to the amounts of plutonium produced as a byproduct of their spent nuclear fuel (which is more than what naturally occurs in spent fuel from other reactors), material that could then be separated from the irradiated fuel and further processed to weapons-grade levels.

The heavy water reactor at Arak was never operational. It has never been fed with uranium, never been turned on, never produced even one Watt of energy or a single atom of plutonium. Iran has no reprocessing facilities to turn its nuclear waste into weapons-grade material and has, for years now, committed never to build any.

As part of the nuclear deal, Iran also agreed to deliberately minimize the plutonium production capabilities of its reactors and avoid all production of weapons-grade plutonium in the future. In January 2016, Iran removed the reactor core from the Arak plant and filled it with concrete, thus rendering it unusable.

Furthermore, the deal specifies that, even though it will still use heavy water as a moderator, the "redesigned and rebuilt Arak reactor will not produce weapons grade plutonium" and that "[a]ll spent fuel from Arak will be shipped out of Iran for the lifetime of the reactor."

Contrary to what Hudson writes, heavy water is not a byproduct of nuclear energy production. Saying so makes it sound far more ominous, and linked directly to the hypothetical production of nuclear weapons.

This is the difference just a few misinformed words make.

Hudson isn't the only one to get this wrong. Vox does it all the time.

An Associated Press report from March 2016 used this misleading description: "Heavy water, formed with a hydrogen isotope, has research and medical applications, but can also be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium."

The same month, Joe Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert who heads the Ploughshares Fund, touted the success of the Iran deal in a piece for Politico. Unfortunately, he relied on a number of explicit falsehoods to make his point. Claiming that "we just stopped Iran from getting the bomb," Cirincione explained that, as part of the deal, "Iran ripped out centrifuges, shipped out uranium and filled the core of its new plutonium reactor with concrete." Philip W. Yun, executive director of Ploughshares, repeated this formulation in a June article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Even the fact-checking Goliath PolitiFact gets it wrong. In an April 2016 fact-check, heavy water is described alarmingly and erroneously as "material is a key component of making nuclear weapons and producing nuclear energy." That's pants-on-fire wrong.

Facts are important. It's about time reporters and experts starting getting them right.

*****

UPDATE:

July 16, 2016 - It appears that, following my tweet (below; forgive the "nyclear" typo!) about Hudson's incorrect description of heavy water, the Foreign Policy article was updated to remove the offending reference.


The sentence has now been edited, omitting the description of heavy water as "a byproduct from the production of nuclear energy." It appears this way now:


A note added to the bottom of the article reads only, 'This post has been updated."

*****

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