DUBAI/VIENNA; Iran is “busy redesigning” a planned research reactor to sharply cut its potential output of plutonium - a possible nuclear bomb fuel, a senior Iranian official said in comments that seemed to address a thorny issue in negotiations with big powers.
The future of the Arak plant is among several sticking points that Iran and six world powers need to resolve if they are to reach a deal by late July on limiting the country’s disputed nuclear programme in exchange for an end to sanctions. The main stumbling block is the permissible scope of uranium enrichment in Iran. The lack of progress in bridging negotiating gaps has left the self-imposed July 20 deadline for a long-term settlement looking increasingly unrealistic, and Iran has said a six-month extension of the talks may be necessary. The West is worried that Arak, once operational, could provide a supply of plutonium - one of two materials, along with highly enriched uranium, that can trigger a nuclear explosion.
Iran says the 40-megawatt Arak reactor is intended to produce isotopes for cancer and other medical treatments. It agreed to halt installation work at Arak under a six-month interim deal struck with the powers last November that was geared to buy time for negotiations on a comprehensive accord. After the latest round of talks in Vienna in May, a diplomat from one of the powers said Iran had appeared to row back on its previous openness to address Western fears about the nuclear weapons potential of Arak. Iran has since dismissed as “ridiculous” one mooted solution to such worries. But the head of Iran’s atomic energy organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, appeared to return to a more conciliatory stance in comments to the official IRNA news agency late on Wednesday.
The amount of plutonium the reactor will be able to yield will be reduced to less than 1 kg (2.2 pounds) from 9-10 kg (20-22 pounds) annually in its original design, he said. Western experts say 9-10 kg would be enough for 1-2 nuclear bombs and that Arak’s capacity should be scaled back. “We are currently busy redesigning that reactor to arrange for that alteration,” Salehi was quoted by IRNA as saying. After talks with senior U.S. officials earlier this week, Iran questioned the feasibility of the July deadline for a permanent accord that would minimise the risk of a wider Middle East war over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
While an extension is possible under the terms of the talks, experts believe both Iran and the powers may face domestic political pressures to toughen their terms during this extra time period, further clouding the outlook for a breakthrough. The next round of negotiations will be held in the Austrian capital Vienna on June 16-20. In April, Princeton University experts said that Arak’s annual plutonium production could be lowered to less than 1 kg - well below the roughly 8 kg needed for an atomic bomb - if Iran changed the way Arak is fuelled and lowered its power capacity.
However, Iran expert Ali Vaez said the major powers and Israel - Iran’s arch foe - “remain concerned that Iran could suddenly revert to the original design and build a reprocessing facility” needed to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel. “That would be a lengthy but hard-to-stop process,” Vaez, of the International Crisis Group think-tank, said in a report. Heavy-water reactors like Arak, fuelled by natural uranium, are seen as especially suitable for yielding plutonium. To do so, however, a spent fuel reprocessing plant would also be needed to extract it. Iran is not known to have any such plant.
The powers want Iran to scale back its capacity to refine uranium in order to deny it any capability to quickly produce enough of the material for a bomb. Iran says it needs to refine uranium to fuel a planned network of nuclear power plants. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week the talks were “still hitting a wall” on the enrichment issue. After meeting Iranian officials in Rome this week, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official said some aspects of a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear problem could be agreed during next week’s meeting, but more effort was needed. “The chances for it are increasing. This adds to an optimism but requires additional efforts,” Russian news agencies Itar Tass and Interfax quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Moscow’s chief negotiator, as saying.
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