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Arak Nuclear Complex

Last Modified: May 29, 2014
Other Name: 40MW Heavy Water Research Reactor; IR-40; Arak Nuclear Facility
Location: Arak, Iran
Subordinate To: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI)
Size: 40MW heavy water reactor and a heavy water plant capable of producing 16 metric tons of water per year
Facility Status: Under construction


The Arak Nuclear Complex is comprised of a 40MW heavy water experimental reactor and an adjacent heavy water plant.

IR-40 Heavy Water Research Reactor

Iran tried to purchase a heavy water moderated reactor in the 1990s. Tehran secretly approached at least four nuclear suppliers, but was repeatedly turned down. However, after unspecified foreign experts provided technical assistance, Iran began constructing the reactor on its own.[1] Starting in August 2008, Iran stopped permitting IAEA visits to the construction site. After Iran completed construction of the reactor vessel's containment dome, the Agency was unable to remotely monitor construction progress.[2] Following repeated requests, Iran provided the IAEA access to the IR-40 reactor in August 2009, at which time the Agency was able to carry out Design Information Verification (DIV).[3] The IAEA confirmed that the facility "at its current stage of construction conforms to the design information provided by Iran as of 24 January 2007," although Iran still has not provided updated and detailed design information.[4] At the time of the inspection, Iran estimated that the plant was approximately 63% completed, including installation of the reactor vessel's containment dome.[5]

Heavy water reactors are of proliferation concern because they are optimal for the production of high quality, weapons-grade plutonium. The reactors also do not require enriched uranium to produce weapons-usable material, as they are fueled by natural uranium.[6] The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that if operated efficiently, the IR-40 will be capable of producing approximately 9kg of plutonium annually.[7] Before Iran could use any of the plutonium in a nuclear weapon, however, it would first need to separate it from the reactor's spent fuel. There are currently no known spent fuel reprocessing facilities in Iran. In 2004, Iran declared that due to difficulties in obtaining equipment and technical information, it would not consider constructing hot cells for long-lived radioisotopes at the Arak complex.[8]

 In May 2013, Iran reported its commissioning schedule for the IR-40 to the IAEA. "Phase 1 – pre-commissioning (using dummy fuel assemblies and light water) in the fourth quarter of 2013; Phase 2 – commissioning (using real fuel assemblies and heavy water) in the first quarter of 2014; expected to become operational during the third quarter of 2014." Iran further informed the Agency of its plans to produce 55 fuel assemblies by 9 August 2013. In its May 2013 report, the IAEA highlighted Iran's failure to provide an updated Design Information Questionnaire (DIQ) for the reactor since 2006, thereby falling short of meeting its obligations under the modified Code 3.1 of the General Part of the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement. The report further underlined the impact of this failure on the IAEA's ability to verify the design of the facility, and to implement an effective safeguards approach in light of the approaching date of the IR-40's operation.[9]

Heavy Water Production Plant

The Heavy Water Production Plant (HWPP) will provide heavy water for the IR-40 reactor currently under construction. It began operation in November 2004 and can produce up to 16 metric tons of heavy water per year.[10] Under an IAEA Additional Protocol agreement, heavy water plants are subject to declarations and complementary inspector access.[11] Because Iran has not ratified the Additional Protocol and does not implement it, the facility is currently not under IAEA safeguards.[12] However, the IAEA continues to monitor the status of the facility via satellite imagery.[13] Agency analysis of satellite photos indicates that the plant has been operating intermittently, including a cessation of activity since the IAEA's 5 June 2009 report.[14]

The existence of the HWPP remained secret until 14 August 2002, when the National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed the construction of at least two secret sites related to Iran's nuclear weapons program.[15] The allegations prompted the IAEA Director General, Mohammed El-Baradei, to question Iranian authorities about the existence of a heavy water program.[16] During El-Baradei's visit to Iran in February 2003, Iran officially declared that it was constructing the HWPP.[17]

To justify the need for such a plant, Iranian officials said in 2003 that they did not know whether their uranium enrichment program would succeed or succumb to Western pressure. Therefore, they planned to hedge their bet by constructing a natural uranium-fueled nuclear power plant, using heavy water as the moderator and coolant.[18] According to Iranian statements, the amount of heavy water initially needed for the IR-40 reactor is 80 to 90 tons, with an estimated annual need of less than one ton.[19] Assuming a maximum annual production capacity of 16 tons per year and intermittent operation for approximately five years, it seems unlikely that the HWPP has yet produced enough heavy water to moderate the IR-40 reactor.[20] However, in the early 1990s, China reportedly supplied Iran with an unspecified significant quantity of heavy water.[21] The total combined supply of HWPP-produced and Chinese supplied heavy water may therefore be sufficient for Iran's heavy water research reactor. The cessation of activity at the HWPP supported this theory, as did 30 tonnes of heavy water found by IAEA inspectors at the Isfahan (Esfahan) Uranium Conversion Facility in 2009.[22] However, using satellite imagery to monitor the HWPP, the IAEA reported that as of November 2012, "the plant appears to continue to be in operation."[23] After visiting the HWPP in August 2011, the IAEA requested additional access in October 2011 and January 2012, but Iran has not responded to these requests.

In a letter dated 27 January 2012, the IAEA also requested that Iran provide an updated Design Information Questionnaire for the IR-40 Reactor.[24] In November 2012, the Agency conducted a Design Information Verification (DIV) at the site and reported that, "the installation of cooling and moderator circuit piping was continuing."[25] Iranian media quoted the head of the AEOI that Iran plans to test the reactor in 2013 using dummy fuel, and to launch it the following year.[26]

Currently

While a diplomatic solution to address both Iran’s needs and the international communities concerns are still being negotiated, an agreement was signed in November of 2013 temporally suspending construction at the site.  In the Joint Plan of Action, Iran agreed with the P5 + 1 to halt construction on the IR-40 for six months while promising to provide and updated Design Information Questionnaire to the IAEA.  Iran would later be required to work with the IAEA to conclude upon an agreed safeguards approach for the facility.[27] In exchange for these concessions, the US and EU agreed to lift sanctions imposed on certain Iranian industries, while the US also agreed to refrain from imposing further nuclear related sanctions in the near future.[28] Presently, both Iran and the P5 + 1 are working to fulfill their obligations in the Joint Plan of Action, while further discussions are needed as the six month period for the agreement is set to expire.

Sources:
[1] Robert Einhorn, "Iran's Heavy-Water Reactor: A Plutonium Bomb Factory," Arms Control Association, 9 November 2006, www.armscontrol.org.
[2] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and the Relevant Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 5 June 2009, www.iaea.org.
[3] International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and the Relevant Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 28 August 2009, www.iaea.org.
[4] International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and the Relevant Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 28 August 2009, www.iaea.org.
[5] International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and the Relevant Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 28 August 2009, www.iaea.org.
[6] Robert Einhorn, "Iran's Heavy-Water Reactor: A Plutonium Bomb Factory," Arms Control Association, 9 November 2006, www.armscontrol.org.
[7] The IAEA considers six kilograms of plutonium sufficient for production of a nuclear weapon. David Albright and Paul Brannan, "Arak Heavy Water Reactor Construction Progressing," The Institute for Science and International Security, 13 November 2008.
[8] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 1 June 2004, www.iaea.org.
[9] International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by Director General, 22 May 2013, www.iaea.org.
[10] Jane's Information Group, "Iran's Heavy Water Plant is Nearly Ready," Jane's Foreign Report, 4 November 2004, www.janes.org; "Iran Inaugurates New Atomic Project," The Associated Press, 26 August 2006.
[11] Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), "Nuclear Sites: Arak Heavy Water Production Plant at Khondab," ISIS Nuclear Iran, www.isisnucleariran.org; International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 28 August 2009, www.iaea.org.
[12] Judith Perera, "West Turns on Iran," Nuclear Engineering International, 9 January 2008; Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), "Nuclear Sites: Arak Heavy Water Production Plant at Khondab," ISIS Nuclear Iran, www.isisnucleariran.org.
[13] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 28 August 2009, www.iaea.org.
[14] "Iran Inaugurates New Atomic Project," The Associated Press, 26 August 2006; International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 5 June 2009, www.iaea.org.
[15] Anthony Cordesman, "Iran's Nuclear Weapons Programs: Work in Progress?," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 6 November 2008, www.csis.org.
[16] "Iran N-Plant Claim," The Daily Telegraph, 16 August 2002.
[17] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 6 June 2003, www.iaea.org.
[18] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 10 November 2003, www.iaea.org.
[19] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 10 November 2003, www.iaea.org.
[20] By simple calculation, the maximum amount of heavy water produced at the HWPP is 80 tons (16 tons/year * 5 years). If the HWPP is indeed operating intermittently and currently shut down, the actual amount of heavy water produced should be significantly less than 80 tons.
[21] China transported the heavy water in batches of less than twenty tons because individual transactions of more than twenty tons would have required a report to the IAEA. See: John W. Garver, China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2006), pp. 151-152.
[22] David Albright and Christina Walrond, "Update on the Arak Reactor," Institute for Science and International Security, 15 July 2013, www.isis-online.org.
[23] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 16 November 2012, www.iaea.org.
[24] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions," Report by the Director General, 24 February 2012, www.iaea.org.
[25] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 16 November 2012, www.iaea.org.
[26] "Iran says Arak reactor to be launched in 2 years," Iranian Students News Agency, 18 February 2012.
[27] “Joint Plan of Action,” Republic of Iran and P5+1, 24 November 2014, http://eeas.europa.eu.
[28] “Joint Plan of Action,” Republic of Iran and P5+1, 24 November 2014, http://eeas.europa.eu.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

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