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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Heavy Water Production Plant

The United States purchased 32 tons of a key component in the development of atomic weapons from Iran, in a bid to help Tehran implement provisions in the landmark nuclear deal. The US Energy and State departments confirmed 22 april 2016 the purchase of heavy water, which can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The plan was announced as US, Iranian and other officials met in Vienna to discuss implementation of the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Earlier, Iran sold low-enriched uranium to Russia to help implement the deal. US officials said the purchase will cost about $8.6 million. They described the transaction as "limited in scope" and said it would be routed through "third-country financial institutions."

Construction of the heavy water production plant at Khondab near Arak was reportedly begun in 1996 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). An IRNA article from 26 August 2006, however, mentioned that construction work on the plant began in 1998. The heavy water plant at Arak was reportedly to use the Girdler sulphide process. Canadian plants using this process required approximately 33 TJ of steam heat at moderate temperature (130 C) per metric ton of D2O produced. The Arak plant was to have an initial capacity of 8 t/yr, and thus the plant alone could dispose of around 10 MW. The location of the facility was reportedly determined by the need for large quantities of water, which could be easily supplied by the Qara-Chai river.

As of mid-August 2002, the site was said to be 85 percent completed with some of the facility's units able to carry nuclear tests in the Fall of 2002. Distinguishing features at the site included towers that were 3 meters thick, 48 meters high and each with 70 mesh trays.

At a 13 December 2002 briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated that there was what he termed "hard evidence," that Iran appeared to be constructing a uranium enrichment plant at Nantaz, as well as a heavy water plant. "The suspect uranium-enrichment plant...could be used to produce highly-enriched uranium for weapons. The heavy-water plant could support a reactor for producing weapons-grade plutonium. These facilities are not justified by the needs of Iran's civilian nuclear program," he said.

UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors visited Iran on 25 February 2003 to look at nuclear facilities under construction there. "We will be looking at facilities not even completed yet that are not formally under safeguards," said chief IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky. The visit was the first step in a process of many visits to understand the architecture of the place and to design the most effective monitoring regime for that facility. American officials believed new nuclear facilities in Iran could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Iran strongly rejected the allegations and reiterated that the two plants were intended to generate electricity. "In the next 20 years, Iran has to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity by nuclear plants and the launch of these two centers are aimed at producing necessary fuel for these plants," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said.

In late 2003 the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said Tehran had almost completed construction of the heavy water plant. Gholamreza Aghazadeh said: "This project is considered to be a remarkable feat for our country, through which Iran will acquire heavy water technology, thus placing our country's name alongside world manufactures of this industry."

According to Iranian statements, the estimated annual need for heavy water at the IR-40 was less than 1 t. In a 19 August 2003 letter to the IAEA, Iran provided additional information on the amount of heavy water initially needed for the reactor (approximately 80-90 t), and on the design capacity of the heavy water production plant under construction at Khondab near Arak (8 t of heavy water per year with expansion capabilities to twice its design capacity). According to the information provided in that letter, Iran planned to start the production of heavy water in 2004. In that letter, Iran stated further that laboratory scale experiments to produce heavy water had been conducted in Esfahan in the 1980s using electrolysis techniques. In a meeting held on 29 October 2003, Iran confirmed that the construction of a second production line, with a production capacity of 8 t, had been started. It was further stated that the Khondab facility was actually a pilot plant, and that no laboratory or other experiments using the Girdler Sulphide method (to be used at the Arak facility) had been carried out in the past in Iran.

Aside from a small IAEA-safeguarded "zero-power" research reactor located at the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center, Iran had no known heavy water reactor and no need for an indigenous source of heavy water. Iran's only nuclear power reactor expected to become operational within the next decade was the light-water reactor under construction with Russian help at Bushehr. This raised questions about Iran's intentions in constructing an industrial-scale heavy water production plant at Arak. Heavy-water moderated reactors are better suited for plutonium production than are light water reactors. The US believed Iran's true intent was to develop the capability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, using both the plutonium route (supported ultimately by a heavy-water research reactor) and the highly enriched uranium route (supported by a gas centrifuge enrichment plant). The Arak heavy water plant was said to only makes sense if it was paired with a plutonium production reactor.

On 27 October 2004 a group of reporters from Iran, US, the Netherlands and Germany inspected Iran`s Qatran Complex (the Arak heavy water production plant). The head of the Arak Research and Development Department of Qatran Complex, Manouchehr Madadi, said this was Iran`s first heavy water plant, meeting 99.8 percent of domestic requirements.

On 26 August 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the Arak Heavy Water Production Plant. The IR-40 Reactor remained under construction as of that date and thus not operational. A five year construction period for the reactor was consistent with the five year production period of the heavy water plant. The reactor would require 80-90 tons of heavy water, and the two production lines at Arak would together produce about 16 tons of heavy water every year.

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Page last modified: 23-04-2016 19:41:56 ZULU