New York Times: The recent nuclear accord European officials signed with Iran appears to have halted Tehran’s uranium enrichment program at least temporarily, but it leaves Iran free to make plutonium, which can also be used as fuel for nuclear weapons, diplomats and arms experts say.
New York Times
By WILLIAM J. BROAD and ELAINE SCIOLINO
The recent nuclear accord European officials signed with Iran appears to have halted Tehran’s uranium enrichment program at least temporarily, but it leaves Iran free to make plutonium, which can also be used as fuel for nuclear weapons, diplomats and arms experts say.
Iran is constructing a heavy water reactor that is designed to produce plutonium quite readily, and the agreement, announced last week, does not address that project. Weapons experts say plutonium is often preferred to enriched uranium for compact warheads on missiles because it takes a smaller amount to produce a significant blast.
European diplomats said the issue of suspending Iran’s plutonium program, while long discussed with Tehran, was set aside during recent negotiations as a concession to getting the more limited suspension deal. The uranium issue was seen as more pressing, they said, while plutonium production is years away and can be addressed in the future.
But American experts expressed doubts about the European approach, suggesting it had addressed only half the atomic threat. Their main concern is a site at Arak, where Iranian construction crews are starting work on a 40-megawatt heavy water reactor that will make plutonium.
“This is an obvious omission,” James R. Schlesinger, a former energy secretary and secretary of defense, said in an interview. “A heavy water reactor of 40 megawatts is likely to have one significant purpose – the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.”
Although European officials said they would try to address plutonium production in wide-ranging talks with the Iranians next month, there were signs yesterday that Iran’s commitment to the uranium freeze was in doubt.
Diplomats said that Iran had told the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring group, that despite the agreement, it wanted to be allowed to operate about two dozen uranium centrifuges for research purposes.
Despite the experts’ worries, a senior Bush administration official said yesterday that the Arak reactor was not an immediate concern because its completion was estimated to be a decade away, and European diplomats were pushing for a permanent accord that would cover both types of bomb fuel.
While Iran says its nuclear efforts are for peaceful purposes, American experts see Iran’s insistence on continuing its reactor program as a sign of its true intentions.
Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a Washington research group that tracks atomic materials, noted that heavy water reactors in Israel, India and Pakistan all made plutonium for nuclear warheads.
“If you look around the world at heavy water reactors of this size, virtually all of them have been used to make bombs,” Mr. Milhollin said. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said of the accord. “You’re cutting off one path to the bomb but leaving another open.”
Last year, France, Germany and Britain struck a similar nuclear freeze with Iran, which also omitted the Arak reactor. That agreement fell apart in June after the Iranians decided to resume work on their centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium.
This week, European diplomats defended their decision to focus on Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
“The most preoccupying issue for us was to stop the enrichment process because it was rather far along and they were mastering it more quickly than we had thought,” a senior French official said. “Arak is very worrisome, but the threat is a long way off.”
A European official involved in the negotiations said Europe had long tried to persuade the Iranians to give up Arak. “Our argument has always been, ‘You don’t need it for any conceivable nuclear civilian purpose,’ ” the official said. ” ‘It’s only useful if you want to reprocess plutonium, and therefore you should give it up.’ “
The official added that the Arak issue might be discussed at the board meeting in Vienna of the I.A.E.A., which begins today. The board is expected to decide whether Iran has curbed its nuclear activities or should be referred to the Security Council for sanctions.
The existence of the nuclear facilities at Arak was first revealed in 2002 by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an antigovernment group.
Although the Bush administration has not made an issue of plutonium production recently, in 2002, Ari Fleischer, then the White House spokesman, said the United States had “serious concerns” about the planned reactor because of its capacity for “producing weapons-grade plutonium.” The plan’s disclosure, he added, “reinforces the concerns that the president has had all along.”
Nonproliferation experts see heavy water reactors as a danger because they are a relatively simple way to produce bomb fuel. These reactors use natural uranium, rather than the enriched form, which is difficult and costly to make. The heavy water, which contains a weighty form of hydrogen, slows the movement of neutrons in the reactor, allowing them to be absorbed by uranium. In some cases the uranium atom splits in two. In other cases, the uranium is transformed into plutonium. Then engineers remove the plutonium from spent fuel in a step known as reprocessing.
Last year, Iran admitted to conducting secret experiments between 1988 and 1993 on plutonium reprocessing. United Nations inspectors later found that Iranian officials had understated the amount separated.
The exact state of progress at Arak is unclear. Recently, journalists toured the plant there for making heavy water and reported that its output of eight tons a year was expected to double in the next few months.
In a Nov. 15 report on Iran, the international atomic agency said Tehran planned to start operating the reactor in 2014. The report also said the agency’s board had called on Iran “to reconsider its decision to start construction” of the reactor. The Iranians say it is for research and making medical isotopes. But Western experts say it is too big for research and too small for making electricity. Its size, they added, is roughly that of those used abroad to make plutonium bomb fuel.
Unlike uranium, plutonium has few civilian uses and is mainly produced for nuclear weapons. Iran’s recent accord with the Europeans, bars Tehran from all reprocessing of spent fuel rods. So, in theory, any plutonium made at Arak would have to stay unseparated. But European diplomats said they hoped that, if the uranium accord holds, they would be able to negotiate an expansion that would include the suspension of all work on the Arak reactor.
As part of the planned negotiations on the heavy water reactor, European officials said they would try to persuade Iran to give up its work at Arak in exchange for a light water reactor. Such reactors are cooled by natural water and are considered better for producing electricity than plutonium.
But that could cause other complications. The Russians have a contract with Iran to finish a half-built, light water reactor at Bushehr. The European officials said the Russians might view the European initiative as a rival that would deprive them of revenue. In addition, they said, the United States would have to approve such a transfer of technology, an unlikely move given the Bush administration’s hard line against Iran.