The Department of Energy agreed to help modernize Iran’s Arak nuclear reactor as part of the deal struck between the Obama administration and the Iranian government.
The Energy Department will collaborate with Chinese and Iranian officials to modernize the Arak reactor as part of a Joint Comprehensive Plan that was agreed to earlier this year. The modernized reactor will not produce weapons-grade plutonium, but will be redesigned to a lower power level to produce smaller quantities of plutonium that won’t be weapons grade. Lower quality plutonium, however, could still be used to make low-tech nuclear explosives often called “dirty bombs.”
The Arak reactor is a natural uranium-fueled heavy-water reactor originally designed for making weapons-grade plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons. Spent fuel from heavy-water reactors contains plutonium suitable for a nuclear bomb. If allowed to become fully operational, Arak could produce 10 to 12 kilograms of plutonium a year — that’s enough weapons-grade material to produce 1 to 2 nuclear weapons annually, according to research. Arak’s stated purpose, however, is to make radioisotopes for medical and agricultural purposes
The Iranian government said Arak’s nuclear materials would not be turned into weapons-grade plutonium, but similar reactors have been used for weapons-grade production in other countries, including India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. All of those countries now possess nuclear weapons.
In March 2013, the Obama administration began secret talks with Iran to get the country to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions. Iran and the United States agreed to a deal earlier this year that’s being opposed by congressional Republicans. House lawmakers rejected the Iran deal last month in a 269 to 162 vote. Republicans argued it was dangerous to legitimize Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Critics also argued Iran could violate the agreement. Senate Republicans, however, failed to get enough Democrats to vote against the Iran deal.
Under the terms of the deal, Iran will reduce its stockpiles of enriched uranium along with its capacity to enrich new uranium. Over the next 15 years, Iran will enrich uranium to levels below those required to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran won’t build any new uranium-enriching facilities, except the Arak facility. In exchange, U.S., European, and United Nations economic sanctions on Iran will be lifted.
“Iran intends to ship out all spent fuel for all future and present power and research nuclear reactors, for further treatment or disposition as provided for in relevant contracts to be duly concluded with the recipient party” reads the text of the Iran deal.
The Energy Department’s announcement comes after the last U.S. aircraft carrier left the Persian Gulf earlier this month, leaving the US with no aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf region for the first time since 2007.