There’s something about Arak

Media cited France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as saying Iran’s heavy water reactor IR-40 at Arak was a reason to block an interim deal with Iran at talks in Geneva that ended Sunday.

The heavy water research reactor, a clunker whose construction has been dogged by delays, will produce plutonium. But here are some technical issues to consider that question Fabius’ seizing upon it with such vigor:

It is probable that the fuel supply will be a problem – a limit to how much plutonium the reactor could produce in a year; as it is, this is very much an issue for IAEA safeguards inspectors. Details of inspections in August 2013 here.  And in May the IAEA reported (para 32) Iran would use dummy fuel during pre-commissioning.

If, because of an insufficient supply of of fresh fuel, its operators prolong each cycle the plutonium would be “cooked” beyond weapons grade into a virtually unusable form. But this is the sort of data IAEA inspectors would be privy to when the reactor goes on-line.

The reactor fuel, just like in a Candu reactor, will be natural uranium. It’s  a high fired form of uranium oxide pellets. Packed in tubes clad in precision prepared zirconium metal tubes. Reprocessing the spent fuel for its plutonium will be a challenge. There is no sign that Iran has built a reprocessing plant and no open source information of attempts to buy one.

Arak is not a clear and present danger. There will be an adequate and long lead time for verification clues the IAEA can collect, especially in the fuel supply if there is ever an attempt to divert it.  Without minimising the risks, it poses, it seems disingenuous by France to have used the spectre of Arak to break up the party in Geneva.

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