Jeffrey LewisTechnical Cooperation for Arak

Manging the Atom Quote of the Day:

“A 12-inch hunting knife also could be used to spread jam on your toast in the morning.”

Former director of nonproliferation at the State Department Robert J. Einhorn “conceded that the Arak reactor could have peaceful uses, though implausibly so.”

Regular readers know that I’ve been somewhat annoyed that much of the attention focused on Iran doesn’t seem to extend to the 40 MW heavy water reactor that Iran is building near Arak—a reactor that Bob Einhorn and Daryl Kimball have rightly called a bomb factory.

A few weeks ago, Iran asked the IAEA for technical cooperation to improve safety at the reactor, which Iran claims will be completed in 2009. Fortunatley, Einhorn and Kimball sent around a press release and worked the phones, arguing.
that “technical assistance for Arak that would give legitimacy to a project conceived long ago as providing Iran another route to a nuclear weapons capability…” (See also the coverage they generated, by Reuters and Bill Broad).

To illustrate Einhorn and Kimball’s point, I created a small table. This, my friends, is a list of heavy water research reactors with a capacity between 40-60 MW:

Country Reactor Thermal Power Status Criticality Date
India CIRUS 40 OPER July 1960
Taiwan, China TRR 40 SHUT January 1973
Canada NRX 42 SHUT July 1947
European Union ESSOR 43 SHUT March 1967
Pakistan Khushab 50 OPER April 1998
Germany MZFR 58 DECM September 1965
France HFR 58 OPER July 1971
Canada WR-1 60 SHUT November 1965
United States of America HFBR 60 SHUT October 1965
United States of America HWCTR 61 SHUT March 1962

Source: IAEA, Nuclear Research Reactors in the World. Thermal Power in Megawatts (MW).

Now 40-60 MW is a somewhat arbitrary breaking point in the data. (Using 30-100 MW as the range would result in a list with just two additional reactors—Switzerland’s 30 MW DIORIT and India’s 100 MW Dhruva—which both were associated with national nuclear weapons programs. Going down to 26 MW adds two UK reactors, Israel’s Dimona and maybe North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor.*)

The point is this: India, Israel, Pakistan, and Taiwan all chose this reactor design and size because it is well-suited for plutonium production:

It is not by coincidence that India’s [CIRUS] reactor, Pakistan’s Khushab reactor, and Israel’s Dimona reactor are all large, heavy-water reactors. Fueled by natural uranium, these reactors don’t require their owners to go the trouble of obtaining enriched uranium fuel—either by making it indigenously or buying safeguarded enriched uranium from abroad. Moreover, when reprocessed, fuel rods irradiated in such reactors yield high-quality, weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea’s infamous 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, while moderated with graphite rather than heavy water, is also fueled with natural uranium. All of these reactors are excellent plutonium bomb factories. That’s why they were acquired.

All these reactors have been shut down with the telling exceptions of India’s CIRUS and Pakistan’s Khushab making plutonium for their nuclear weapons programs and the High Flux Reactor (HFR) in France.

Notice also—again with the telling exception of Khushab—that these reactors are old. Since 1980, only Pakistan, India and Algeria have opened new heavy water research reactors.

Anyway, it now looks like the IAEA will not approve technical cooperation.

The diplomats, all participants in a committee meeting at the agency, which is the United Nations’ nuclear monitor, said the tentative agreement was for approval of Tehran’s requests for agency aid on seven other nuclear projects, but refusal of its call for help in building the plutonium-producing reactor at Arak.

The decision would be made formally Thursday, after the committee, which is looking at hundreds of requests for technical aid from member countries, completes its work and a full board meeting begins. The chairman of that meeting would announce approval of all the projects except for Arak, four diplomats said.

That’s, at least, a start.

*The Yongbyon reactor, which is 5 MW(electric) is—for an apples to apples comparison—20-30 MW(thermal).