The initiation of operations at the Arak heavy-water reactor site in Iran has been pushed back from mid-2013 to the early part of the following year, Reuters quoted the International Atomic Energy Agency as saying in a new report on Iranian atomic operations.
Observers worry the Arak facility could be used to produce nuclear weapon-usable plutonium through processing of used fuel. Fears of Iran's potential nuclear arms capability have primarily focused on its uranium enrichment efforts. Tehran says its nuclear program has no military aspect.
Pipes intended for different purposes are still being placed into the plant, according to Reuters. The new finding appears to reverse earlier reporting that Iran would bring the Arak plant online next year rather than in 2014 as previously anticipated.
"Iran stated that the operation of the IR-40 reactor was now expected to commence in the first quarter of 2014," according to the safeguards report from the U.N. nuclear watchdog. It did not offer a cause for the delay.
There is reason to doubt whether Iran could even start operations at Arak by early 2014 given "significant delays and impeded access to necessary materials," the Arms Control Association said. The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran, which have been compounded by additional moves from the European Union, United States and a host of other governments to cut off Tehran from the global marketplace.
The Arak plant is intended for manufacturing of medical and agricultural isotopes, according to Iran. Former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen said, though, that the facility is "ill-suited" for such work. Meanwhile, potential construction of a reprocessing site could enable the nation to produce plutonium from the reactor around 2016 to 2017, Heinonen said.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies stated in a 2011 report that Tehran has declared the used material from Arak would not undergo reprocessing. However, "similarly sized reactors ostensibly built for research" have been turned toward nuclear-weapon plutonium production in India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan, noted IISS nonproliferation and disarmament project chief Mark Fitzpatrick.
The IAEA report also notes that Iran has installed close to the full complement of 2,800 uranium enrichment centrifuges at its subterranean complex near Qum, Reuters reported.
The count of operational devices could quickly be upped from the current 700 to about 1,400, according to the agency.
The Qum site has been of particular concern to Washington and allied governments as it is hardened against attack and is being used to produce 20 percent-enriched uranium. While Iran says the material is needed for a medical research reactor in Tehran, observers say the refinement process would be a key step toward production of weapon-grade uranium with an enrichment level of about 90 percent.
While an IAEA report issued in August determined that Iran had diverted part of its higher-enriched stockpile into a form that could not easily be used for nuclear weapons, the nation at present appears to have essentially halted that project. Tehran appears to hold almost 298 pounds of material enriched to 20 percent; it would need 440 to 551 pounds of the uranium to refine further for one nuclear weapon.
"This puts added pressure on the West's diplomacy with Iran, which has to operate on a tighter schedule," said Royal United Services Institute research fellow Shashank Joshi.
"As Iran's 20 percent stockpile approaches around 240 [kilograms], the Israeli saber-rattling will resume," he added. Tel Aviv has recently toned down its warnings of potential strikes against its longtime foe amid signs Iran would need longer than previously thought to breach the "red line" by preparing enough uranium for a nuclear weapon.
Satellite pictures are still indicating "significant developments" that suggest efforts to eliminate potential proof of what has been seen as nuclear arms-related research at Iran's Parchin armed forces installation, according to the IAEA report. The agency has previously noted indications "that Iran constructed a large explosives containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments," the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in an analysis of the document.
The U.N. organization has since February unsuccessfully sought access to the site. Iran says a broader agreement outlining the boundaries of the U.N. probe of its nuclear work is needed first. Another round of talks on the matter is set for Dec. 13.
Activities noted over the course of this year at Parchin include elimination of five structures and some fencing; covering of the structure used to house the containment vessel, along with another building; and extraction of piping from the vessel-holding structure, the IAEA report says.
The agency said it remains "unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities" in Iran.
Meanwhile, atomic fuel has been extracted from Iran's lone nuclear power plant, Reuters reported.
The International Atomic Energy Agency in early November "conducted an inspection of BNPP (Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant) and verified that the fuel assemblies were in the spent fuel pond," according to the new safeguards report. It did not provide additional details.
The Bushehr plant was said to be providing electricity as of September 2011, and to be completely active as of three months ago.
The situation indicates the facility is not operating at present, according to one informed envoy. "It was certainly not foreseen, that's for sure."
Iranian Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh on Sunday indicated, though, the fuel transfer demonstrated that Iran was assuming greater control of the Bushehr site from Russia, which built the plant. An official transfer of full operations is expected in March of next year, according to the Russian nuclear construction firm.
It is a "very normal technical procedure (during the transfer) ... to make sure every safety aspect is taken into consideration," Soltanieh said to Reuters. He did not offer specifics.
Another senior Iranian envoy on Monday also called for a better approach from six leading governments in dealing with his nation's nuclear program, Reuters reported.
Delegates from Iran and the six powers -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- have met three times this year in talks that have failed to deliver notable advancement in resolving the long-running atomic impasse. Officials from the six states are due to meet on Wednesday, ahead of another potential round of talks by early 2013.
"We hope that in the next talks, the six nations -- instead of (applying) a double standard, would approach these talks more constructively," Iranian Ambassador to Russia Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi said to reporters in Moscow.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Friday urged the participating nations to step up efforts to schedule the next meeting with Iran, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
"It is necessary to find the 'windows' in the working schedules of leaders and political directors and to coordinate them," according to Ryabkov." The talks cannot be held through giving interviews to mass media. We need to gather and study the documents."
Meanwhile, intermediaries and firms in Asia appear to be increasingly supporting Iran's efforts to skirt U.S. and global export restrictions in order to obtain technology that could be used for nuclear and other worrying ends, the Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday. Eight cases have gone to U.S. federal court since 2010, while others have remained secret.
"Our investigations in recent months have uncovered a growing number of networks illegally exporting restricted U.S.-origin technology, including munitions and materials with nuclear applications, to Iran, through front companies in China and Hong Kong," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.