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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Iran Nuclear Research Reactor (IR-40)

Iran attempted to buy a 30 MWt heavy water research reactor from China in 1991. The plan to build the reactor at Isfahan fell through due to technical and financial problems.

In December 1998, US intelligence reports were publicly cited as having revealed that two Russian nuclear research institutes were actively negotiating to sell Iran a 40-megawatt heavy-water research reactor and a uranium-conversion facility.

A much-anticipated report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), distributed to governments on 6 June 2003 in advance of a meeting of the agency's board of governors on 16 June 2003, concluded that Iran had failed to comply with its nuclear safeguards agreement. The IAEA report revealed Iran was building a previously unacknowledged heavy-water research reactor at Arak. That facility could increase Iran's technological options for the production of nuclear weapons. A 5 May 2003 letter from Iran informed the agency for the first time of its intention to construct a heavy water research reactor, a type often associated with production of plutonium for nuclear weapons programs. One report suggested the reactor would have a power level of 40MW. In the 6 June 2003 IAEA Report, the Agency stated it intended to complete a more thorough expert analysis of the research and development carried out by Iran in the establishment of its enrichment capabilities. This would require Iran to submit a complete chronology of its centrifuge and laser enrichment efforts at Natanz.

On 13 July 2003 the Iranian authorities made a presentation on some technical features of the 40 MW(th) heavy water reactor (the Iran Nuclear Research Reactor or IR-40), construction of which was planned to start in 2004. The reactor, which Iranian officials had stated was based on indigenous design, was at the time moving from the basic design phase to the detailed design phase. Iranian officials further stated that Iran had tried unsuccessfully on several occasions to acquire from abroad a research reactor suitable for medical and industrial isotope production and for research and development to replace the old research reactor in Tehran. Iranian officials had concluded, therefore, that the only alternative was a heavy water reactor, which could use the UO2 produced in UCF and the Zirconium Production Plant in Esfahan. According to the Iranian authorities, to meet the isotope production requirements, such a reactor would have a neutron flux of 1013 to 1014 n/cm2/s, which would require power on the order of 30-40 MW(th) when using natural UO2 fuel.

During their visit in July 2003, IAEA inspectors were provided with drawings of the IR-40. Contrary to what would have been expected given the declared radioisotope production purpose of the facility, the drawings contained no references to hot cells. The IAEA raised this issue during that visit, particularly in light of open source reports of recent efforts by Iran to acquire from abroad heavy manipulators and leaded windows designed for hot cell applications. The IAEA indicated to the Iranian authorities that, given the specifications of the manipulators and windows, which were the subject of those reports, a design for hot cells should have existed already and that therefore the hot cell, or cells, should already have been declared, at least on a preliminary basis, as part of the facility or as a separate installation.

The IAEA was provided on 4 August 2003 with an updated design information questionnaire (DIQ), which was subsequently reviewed. The DIQ did not contain any references to hot cells, contrary to what would be expected given the radioisotope production purposes of the facility. The IAEA asked Iran again to look into this matter further, particularly in light of recent open source accounts of alleged efforts by Iran to import remote manipulators and windows that would be suitable for use in hot cells.

In its 19 August 2003 letter, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) provided information on the heavy water reactor program, stating that a decision to start the research and development had been taken in the early 1980s. It further stated that, in the mid-1980s, laboratory scale experiments to produce heavy water had been conducted in the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre, and that a decision to construct a heavy water reactor had been taken in the mid-1990s. The letter provided additional information on the amount of heavy water initially needed for the IR-40, and on the design capacity of the heavy water production plant under construction at Khondab near Arak. According to the information provided in the letter, Iran planned to start the production of heavy water in 2004.

In its letter of 21 October 2003, Iran acknowledged that two hot cells had been foreseen for this project. However, according to the information provided in that letter, neither the design nor detailed information about the dimensions or the actual layout of the hot cells was available yet, since they did not know the characteristics of the manipulators and shielded windows that they could procure. On 1 November 2003, Iran confirmed that it had tentative plans to construct at the Arak site yet another building with hot cells for the production of radioisotopes. Iran agreed to submit the relevant preliminary design information with respect to that building in due course.

According to Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of the AEOI, as of the end of 2003 the basic design of the reactor had been completed. Construction was set to begin early in 2004.

As of early April 2004 Iran said construction work on the reactor was due to start within months. Iranian officials announced that construction would begin in June 2004 for the first time during talks in Tehran with IAEA head Mohamed El Baradei on 6 April 2004.

On 12 June 2004 Iran rejected European demands that it freeze additional parts of its atomic program, including the heavy-water reactor. "We will not accept any new obligation," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said at a news conference. "If anyone asks us to give up Isfahan industries to change yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas or to give up heavy-water facilities in Arak, we cannot accept such an extra demand that is contradictory to our legal rights."

On 18 June 2004 the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution submitted by France, Germany and Britain, that called on Iran to freeze the construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak and the conversion of uranium in Isfahan.

On 26 August 2006 Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad opened the heavy-water plant. The ceremony took place at the Khondab plant near the city of Arak, some 200 kilometers southwest of Tehran. Ahmadinejad said that his country's controversial nuclear program posed no threat to any other country, even Israel, "which is a definite enemy." He warned that the Iranian people would defend its rights to nuclear technology "with force." The reactor, which could produce plutonium for use in making nuclear weapons, was scheduled to be opened in 2009. In 2004 and 2005 the IAEA had reported that Iranian authorities did not expect the reactor to come online until 2014. The IAEA reported in February 2006 that they thought the activation of the reactor might still be delayed until 2011.

Based on construction timelines in other countries, as of 2004 Iran appeared to be at least five years away from completing the heavy water reactor at Arak. The DPRK began construction in 1979 of the 5-MWe graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon, from which it could extract and reprocess plutonium. That reactor became operational in 1986. Pakistan's Khushab heavy water reactor, with a capacity variously reported at between 40 MWT to 50 MWT (and as high as 70 MWT), was "commissioned" in March 1996, and had been under construction with Chinese assistance since the mid-1980s. According to a Pakistani press report, the Khushab plutonium production reactor had gone critical and began operating in early 1998. Begining around 1958 with French assistance, Israel constructed a natural uranium, heavy-water, research reactor at Dimona. This reactor, nominally rated at 26 megawatts thermal, was put on line in early 1964.

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.

The amount of plutonium a 40MW(th) reactor could produce each year would depend on the reactor's "capacity factor," the percentage of time that they are actually operating. This could range from 60 percent to up to 85 percent. A capacity factor of 60 percent would yield about 9 kilograms each year, while a 90 percent capacity factor would yield 12.5 kilograms of plutonium each year. A single nuclear weapon might require 4 or 5 kilograms of plutonium, so the reactor could produce two or three atomic bombs each year.

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Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:41:12 ZULU