Iran's Arak nuclear reactor: Real dealbreaker or red herring?

Iran's Arak heavy water reactor was no secret to nuclear experts. It just didn't worry them. So how did it suddenly become a dealbreaker?

Hamid Foroutan/ISNA/AP/File
Iran's heavy water nuclear facility near the central city of Arak is backdropped by mountains Jan. 15, 2011.

Among key issues to resolve when Iran and world powers meet Wednesday is the unfinished heavy water reactor whose fate helped scuttle a deal in the last round of nuclear talks in Geneva

The obscure, half-built Arak research reactor took center stage when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius raised it at the talks earlier this month. Focus on Arak blindsided diplomats because the reactor had been largely ignored in previous rounds of negotiations – its completion date is distant and continues to slip. Arak has been considered a manageable problem. 

But that's not the view of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is hosting French President François Hollande this week and has strongly opposed the initial deal with Iran that US officials say will halt Iran's nuclear progress for six months while a final deal is reached.

"A good deal is a deal that strips Iran of capabilities for preparing fissile material for a nuclear bomb," Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday, with Mr. Hollande by his side. He charged that the plutonium-producing reactor at Arak was "being used exclusively for preparing a nuclear bomb" and, along with Iran's centrifuges, must be dismantled.

Hollande listed France's own requirements, which largely match American ones and include halting work at Arak. France is a member of the P5+1 group (which includes the US, Russia, China, Britain and France) that is negotiating with Iran. 

But the small, heavy water research reactor at Arak has been plagued by at least five delays already and its late 2014 completion date is expected to slip further. It would be yet another year before the reactor would produce enough plutonium as a byproduct for a bomb – though Iran has no plans for a reprocessing facility necessary to then extract that plutonium. Iran insists the reactor itself is for producing medical isotopes and electricity. 

Several United Nations Security Council resolutions dating back to 2006 require Iran to suspend work at Arak, along with suspending all enrichment. But Iran has balked at stopping work on the reactor because the completion date is so distant. It prefers instead to commit to not start up Arak during the six-month final negotiations.

“This issue should not be a showstopper in negotiations with Iran,” says Mark Hibbs, a non-proliferation expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contacted in Bonn.

Nuclear experts say Iran should stop making the fuel assemblies, which need to be inserted into the reactor to eventually get it running and are already woefully behind schedule. The challenge of making the fuel to run the reactor, along with the fact that key pieces have yet to be installed, make it clear that Arak will not be brought online soon.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also wants up-to-date design information so it can create an effective safeguard system. A deal it signed in Tehran a week ago should solve that problem, and others. Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency called the IAEA agreement a "giant trust-building step" that should reduce P5+1 "excuses…especially when one of the biggest excuses has been Arak's case."

“If the [P5+1] agree to freeze making fuel for the reactor and then arrange for the IAEA to get data to inspect the reactor, that should do it,” says Mr. Hibbs. “The bottom line is, if we look back where we were a year ago, no one could imagine that we are this close. For that reason, we don’t want to see this [Arak] issue to stand in the way of a deal.”

Since the last Geneva round, the Obama administration has said it is essential that Arak be included in the initial deal. In fact, part of the P5+1 incentive package could include technical help to make the fuel for Arak safely, and offering to help convert the plant into a light water reactor that would have little risk of being used for weapons production.

Already work at Arak has all but stopped, according to the IAEA report of Nov. 14. Besides some new piping, in the previous three months “no other major components, such a control room equipment, the refueling machine and reactor cooling pumps, had been installed.” Throughout that time, Iran was still working on the eleventh fuel assembly – out of 150 the reactor needs.

While Arak may not have featured much in the Iran-P5+1 talks since early 2012, it had caught the attention of non-proliferation experts.

In 2006 Robert Einhorn – before he rejoined the US government and was on the US nuclear negotiating team – described Arak as a “Plutonium Bomb Factory” in an article published by the Arms Control Association in Washington. Mr. Einhorn wrote that it was “highly suspicious” that Iran had opted for a heavy water reactor that produced plutonium, when a light water reactor would serve Iran’s stated objectives just as well.

Could the Arak reactor “actually be used to produce isotopes for peaceful purposes? Yes it could,” said Einhorn. “A 12-inch hunting knife also could be used to spread jam on your toast in the morning.”

In Geneva, the likely deal is that Iran freeze its nuclear progress, perhaps rolling it back some, in exchange for limited sanctions relief and other measures such as access to frozen cash that could be worth $6 billion or more.

“No one thinks the Iranian schedule for Arak is realistic… So it is reasonable to leave most of the issues pertaining to Arak until the next [final] round,” says Shashank Joshi, at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

“The worry for the P5+1 – and this may have been the French concern – is that Arak may have advanced very significantly [in six months] such that you will be in a worse position than when you started,” says Mr. Joshi. “In turn, the P5+1 would have shunned sanctions for that entire period, so Iran would be in as good a position as when it started.”

“Is that a dealbreaker?” asks Joshi. “No, because I think you can craft a deal that pauses certain activities, and there is no reason Iran can’t come away saying ‘We didn’t compromise on our right to run Arak.’ There are mutually acceptable compromises here.”

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