In response to:

How to Deal with Iran from the February 12, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

The article “How to Deal with Iran” by Bill Luers, Tom Pickering, and Jim Walsh [NYR, February 12] is an excellent piece on relations with Iran, but you would never know from it, the press, or Washington that Iran has two very different nuclear reactor programs. One of them, the big electric-power reactor at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, runs on enriched uranium, and is everyone’s focus, but the other, a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak in central Iran, produces plutonium, making possible a much easier road to weapons-grade material. It is the same kind of reactor that India and Israel used to produce the plutonium for their weapons programs and is a cousin of the one North Korea used. Iran says that the Arak reactor is for the production of medical isotopes, used for diagnosis and treatment of diseases, and for research.

A heavy-water reactor operates with natural uranium rather than enriched uranium so there is no need to build a big, expensive, and easy-to-spot enrichment plant. It is also continuously refueled, unlike an electric-power reactor, which requires annual long and highly visible shutdowns to exchange roughly one third of its old fuel for new fuel. The spent fuel pellets of a heavy-water reactor contain plutonium as well as medical isotopes, and the same facility that extracts medical isotopes can also extract plutonium for weapons. These qualities make heavy-water reactors a greater proliferation risk, but fortunately they are much more expensive than the ordinary water-cooled power reactors, and few large ones have been built.

At 40 megawatts, the Arak reactor is large for its stated purpose; big enough to satisfy a significant part of the world’s demand for medical isotopes. A reactor of that kind and size can also produce enough weapons-grade plutonium to make one or two nuclear weapons each year. As has already been demonstrated by India, Israel, and North Korea, it is easier to go this route to nuclear weapons than it is to get the necessary weapons-grade uranium by building and operating an enrichment plant with tens of thousands of centrifuges running day and night.

Does either the nuclear power project or the isotope project make sense for Iran? To me the answer is “yes” for the Bushehr power reactor and a very skeptical “maybe” for the Arak isotope-production reactor. Demand for electricity is growing in Iran as its population and per capita GDP increase. Even at today’s prices for oil and natural gas, Iran could get its electricity at less cost from nuclear power while selling its oil and gas to outsiders.

As for medical isotopes, there certainly is a market. Canada’s 125-megawatt heavy-water reactor is the big player in that market, producing a large fraction of the world’s supply of some of the isotopes. Having sources distributed around the world is a good thing in theory, but I don’t see Iran having the economic justification for isotope production that it can make for nuclear electricity. I spent a week in Iran at the end of last May and saw what seemed like a vibrant economy constrained by limited infrastructure. Spending a very large amount of money on both the plant to produce the heavy water and on the reactor is a strange economic choice to me.

The heavy-water plant at Arak is complete and in operation. The reactor itself is under construction and is supposed to be completed in four years. There are easy-to-monitor signals that can show if the output is medical or weapons material, and appropriate safeguards for the Arak reactor should be required in any nuclear deal with Iran. While we continue to argue over the Bushehr enrichment plant, we should not forget there is another ball in play, and we may have been watching the wrong one.

Burton Richter
Nobel Laureate
Member, US Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee
Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Palo Alto, California

Bill Luers, Tom Pickering, and Jim Walsh reply:

We agree with Burton Richter’s concerns about the perils of plutonium reprocessing. Richter rightly argues that most discussions of the Iranian nuclear program focus on the dangers of centrifuges and enrichment and not on Iran’s construction of a heavy-water plant and its plans for a reactor at Arak. We also concur that the rationale for the plant—the production of medical and other isotopes—is thin and that in any case, such a rationale does not justify either the size or type of plant that is being built at Arak.

That is why in our earlier article, “A Solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff” [NYR, March 20, 2008], we maintain that any multinational arrangement for Iran’s enrichment of nuclear fuel would have to adhere to the principle that “Iran would be prohibited from producing either highly enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium.” Indeed, we believe that the multinational approach provides the most promising avenue for reducing the risk of proliferation in all aspects of Iran’s nuclear programs.

We urge that work on the Arak reactor be suspended and that alternative arrangements be put in place to assure Iran a reliable supply of medical isotopes. For this to happen, however, the US will have to begin to engage with Iran in the ways we outline in our most recent article. We take comfort in the fact that the Arak reactor is still several years from completion and that the International Atomic Energy Agency has continued to verify that Iran is not engaging is any reprocessing activity. Accordingly, we have given more attention to the larger, near-term challenge of uranium enrichment, but Dr. Richter is wise to remind us that the reprocessing issue will have to be addressed as part of any resolution of the nuclear dispute.

This Issue

April 30, 2009