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Iran’s research reactors prove the nuclear deal is still working

How Iran’s research reactors prove the nuclear deal is still working, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists By Samuel M. Hickey | August 11, 2021  An underexamined success story from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiations is the effective blocking of Tehran’s ability to collect plutonium for a nuclear bomb. Not only has the nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), been effective in constraining Iran’s program, but it could, suitably adapted, provide a standard of guidance for research reactor construction that would lower proliferation risks worldwide.

There are two pathways to get the fissile material to fuel a nuclear bomb. The first is to enrich uranium, and the second is to recover plutonium from the spent fuel of a reactor. The JCPOA blocked both pathways. Now, Iran’s advancing enrichment program is the key obstacle for diplomats trying to revive the deal, and those talks have dragged on for months as the program marches forward.

Many nuclear weapons, including that used on Hiroshima, are uranium-based. However, every country that has a nuclear weapon has produced and separated plutonium for weapons. Iran has not reopened this path despite efforts by its conservative-dominated parliament to pressure the United States to lift sanctions in return for nuclear deal compliance. In December 2020, Iran passed a nuclear law requiring a return to a threatening research reactor design. So far, Iran has not adhered to that law because the modifications made to the original design under the JCPOA made the reactor even more efficient. This suggests that even in its weakened state, the JCPOA continues to provide permanent solutions to potential proliferation concerns. Its revival can further cement these gains as a “longer and stronger” deal is sought.

The inherent problem with nuclear reactors. Here’s the conundrum for nuclear negotiators both with Iran now and potentially with other countries in the future: Given enough time, all civilian research reactors will produce enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon that could be reprocessed—or separated from irradiated uranium—in their spent fuel. Some, like Iran’s Arak heavy water research reactor, as originally designed, are particularly well suited for plutonium production but also have civilian purposes such as medical radioisotope production and the testing of nuclear fuel and materials. Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, Sweden, and Taiwan have considered acquiring reprocessing plants but eventually demurred, given international reaction to the potential for proliferation. There is no public evidence that Iran has a reprocessing facility.

Since the Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA, Iran has introduced advanced centrifuges and stockpiled uranium. This means that the amount of time for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon via the enriched uranium path has been significantly decreased. However, the spent fuel pathway has not been reactivated as Iran has not done any work to reconstruct the Arak heavy water research reactor to its original design nor has it engaged in any reprocessing activities. Iran’s hedging strategy, ostensibly to accumulate leverage in negotiations to revive the JCPOA, suggests that nuclear brinksmanship with uranium enrichment grants a certain flexibility that plutonium does not………………………..

August 12, 2021 - Posted by | Iran, politics international

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