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Arak nuclear reactor neutered

The March 2015 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme have produced some positive outcomes, including on the long-pending issue of the Arak nuclear reactor.

Arak had remained a cause of concern even after November 2013, when Iran and the P5+1 states (Britain, China, France, Russia, the U.S.+ Germany) negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA). The nuclear facility hosts under-construction IR-40 heavy water reactors (HWRs), which are capable of producing plutonium.

Countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia are suspicious of Iran’s nuclear programme and apprehensive that the HWRs could be used in the future to develop nuclear weapons– an apprehension that will probably continue till the deal is sealed at the end of June 2015.

Tehran’s failure to submit a Design Information Questionnaire (DIQ) to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after 2006 and until the November 2013 JPA had raised concerns about the HWRs.  But Fereydoun Abbasi, former head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), stated that providing the DIQ was difficult since that would have revealed information on the “design and development”[1] of the reactor, which could lead to sabotage of the nuclear facilities.

The location of the nuclear facility was made known only in 2002 by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an organisation run by liberal Iranians. The 40 megawatt HWRs will need a lot of water to operate—and they are located near the Qara Chai River  near the Khondab region. The NCRI said that in order to camouflage its construction activities at the Arak facility, Iran used a front organisation, the Mesbah Energy Company.

The concerns were compounded when Iran continued to pursue HWR-related activities despite the 2006 United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1737, which prohibits Iran from pursuing any such activities.

The Additional Protocol (AP) of the IAEA, which Iran signed in 2003 but did not ratify, mandates disclosing information about HWRs to the IAEA. Since Tehran has not ratified the AP, the IAEA safeguards will not apply to the IR-40 HWRs.

Adding to these concerns are Iran’s ballistic missiles, which are capable of delivering nuclear warheads. In 2014, Tehran declared that it was developing multiple re-entry vehicles (MRV) capability for the long range Shahab-3 missiles. MRVs will require miniaturised nuclear warheads—for which plutonium is the best option since plutonium warheads are easier to miniaturise than uranium-enriched warheads.

But Tehran—which maintains that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes—will consider any effort to undermine Iran’s right to avail of nuclear technology for peaceful purpose as a breach of Article IV of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows non-nuclear weapon states to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.  Under the JPA, Iran has committed that it will not separate plutonium from spent-fuel, nor construct any facility for the same.

Iran’s willingness to mitigate the concerns of the P5+1 states on its nuclear programme is also evident in the statements made by Ali Akbar Salehi, now head of AEOI, when he proposed to redesign the reactor to produce one-fifth of the plutonium than what was planned—from 9-10 kilograms to only 1 kilogram plutonium. But  Salehi also confirmed that Iran will not convert the HWRs to Light Water Reactors (LWRs).

As Iran progresses to self-sufficiency in nuclear energy to meet its domestic demands, it is even less likely to give in to any pressure to convert the HWRs into LWRs. Moreover, HWRs are crucial for producing medical isotopes for the treatment of cancer.  However, with Tehran agreeing to reduce the plutonium production levels, Salehi has already stated that the issue of the IR-40 reactors is now “virtually solved.”[2]

Salehi has also said that the plutonium that will be produced by the IR-40s will not be suitable for producing atom bombs.[3] Making bombs will require Tehran to develop a reprocessing facility, which Iran has not constructed after the  JPA of November 2013

According to the new Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in April 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 states, Iran must adhere to the Additional Protocol of the IAEA, which means that the IAEA’s safeguards could be applied to the country’s nuclear facilities. Iran has agreed to this prerequisite.

The JCPOA now forms the basis for the final deal that is to be sealed by June 2015, unlike the JPA that only contained a temporary solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse.

The JCPOA also demands the destruction of the original core of the reactor, ,which could be used for producing weapons grade plutonium, and its removal from the country; Iran has agreed to this condition. Iran is also required to ship its spent fuel from the reactor out of the country. Tehran will also not collect heavy water in excess to what is required for the reactor facility nor build any HWRs at Arak for 15 years, according to the 2015 JCPOA.

Iran has agreed to abide by all these conditions. It has also agreed to re-implement  Modified Code 3.1 of the IAEA, which it accepted in 2003 but denounced in 2007; the code require Iran to inform the IAEA in advance about any new nuclear construction facility.

But is Tehran eventually likely to use the reactors to produce nuclear weapons? In the recent negotiating process in March 2015, Obama said that “if Iran cheats, the world will know it.”[4] Obama also clarified that if there is any reason for suspicion, inspection will be conducted on the nuclear facilities, such as Arak, by the IAEA. Besides, it will make minimal sense for Iran to produce weapons grade plutonium at a time when it wants the West to lift the sanctions which have seriously impacted the Iranian economy.

Debalina Ghoshal is a Research Associate at Delhi Policy Group.

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[1] The Washington Institute, Iranian Suspicions About the IAEA, 21 March 2014, <http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iranian-suspicions-about-the-iaea>

[2] Arab News, Arak heavy water reactor dispute virtually solved, 20 April 2014, <http://www.arabnews.com/news/558321>

[3] Indian Express, Iran will not abandon Arak heavy water reactor: Salehi, 1 December 2013, <http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/iran-will-not-abandon-arak-heavy-water-reactor-salehi/1201921/>

[4] The Washington Free Beacon, Verifying Iran Nuclear Deal Not Possible Experts Say, 6 April 2015 <http://freebeacon.com/national-security/verifying-iran-nuclear-deal-not-possible-experts-say/>