June 17, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 981

Leap Forward In Iran's Nuclear Program: Plutonium Route At Arak Heavy Water Reactor Simplifies Path To Attaining Nuclear Weapon

June 17, 2013 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 981

On June 8, 2013, Iran inaugurated the main nuclear fission container at the heavy water reactor in Arak. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) director Fereydoon Abbasi remarked at the event that Tehran had taken "an important step in the advancement of the project."[1]

In its most recent report, published May 30, 2013, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted that Iran has made progress in the construction and operation of the Arak heavy water reactor despite the demand by the U.N. Security Council in recent years that this activity be suspended. The report also stated that Iran has notified the IAEA that it intends to activate the reactor by the end of 2014 for manufacturing radioactive isotopes for medical purposes.

This month, the IAEA Board of Governors expressed its criticism of Iran for failing to construct the Arak reactor in accordance with the IAEA-approved model; in addition, it noted that since 2006, Iran had failed to supply the agency with all planning information concerning the reactor, as required by IAEA regulations.[2] At the same time, Iran is continuing to prevent the IAEA from inspecting the heavy water reactor, claiming that heavy water is not a nuclear material that requires supervision – even though this kind of reactor can produce weapons-grade fissile material via the plutonium route.


The installation of the nuclear fission container at the heavy water reactor in Arak has several ramifications:

  • It will force the international community to recognize Iran as a nuclear power, as Tehran continues to adhere to its claim that heavy water is not a nuclear material that requires supervision and that the IAEA will therefore not be allowed to inspect its facilities.

  • With this move, Tehran has decided to break through the deadlock in the nuclear talks by shifting the focus to the plutonium route and moving the uranium enrichment route to the back burner.

  • By stepping up the plutonium route by operating the heavy water reactor at Arak, Iran aims to eliminate the possibility of a military attack on its nuclear facilities – because attacking a plutonium reactor that has been activated and is operating will have, inter alia, very grave environmental consequences.

What Is The Arak Heavy Water Reactor For?

While Tehran is declaring that the Arak heavy water reactor will be used to produce isotopes for medical purposes and that it will replace the obsolete research reactor in Tehran, the Tehran reactor is still in operation and has not been shut down. Furthermore, Iran has stockpiled enough uranium enriched to 20% to keep the Tehran reactor operating for years to come.

Why, then, does Iran need two facilities with two different routes – uranium enrichment in Tehran and plutonium in Arak – to manufacture the same isotopes, especially when the Arak reactor offers the easiest and most common way to produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon?

On June 10, 2013, the Iranian website, which is close to Iran's Supreme National Security Council that conducts the nuclear talks vis-à-vis the international community, published an article exposing Tehran's intention to focus the nuclear talks on the plutonium route, as opposed to the uranium-enrichment route that is underway at the Fordo and Natanz facilities.

The article also mentioned the fact that a heavy water reactor could be the easiest path to the production of weapons-grade plutonium.

Following are excerpts from the article:

The Arak Reactor "Will Dominate The Talks"

"The installation of the main container at the Arak reactor a few days before the presidential election indicates that Iran has decided to set a new atmosphere, new conditions, and a new agenda in advance of the next round of talks with the P5+1. Diplomats in Tehran are saying that while the issue of enrichment to a level of 20% at Fordo has been the focus of the talks so far, it is very likely that during 2013, and especially in early 2014, this issue will be pushed aside, and the issue of Arak itself will dominate the talks.

"The West has always portrayed Iran's nuclear program as one with military potential. According to this view, the Arak facility, and especially the heavy water reactor, is more important than [the facilities in] Fordo and Natanz, because it could be one of the easiest and most conventional ways of producing plutonium, which is currently the classic method used worldwide to produce nuclear weapons.

"Iran has announced that the 40-megawatt heavy water reactor at Arak will gradually replace the research reactor in Tehran, which is already producing isotopes required [to combat] hundreds of thousands of types of cancer. However, taking into account the end of the effective life of this reactor [in Tehran], it will soon need to be shut down and replaced with another reactor.

"Although these isotopes have no use other than medical, Iran imported no isotopes for over 20 years, because of the sanctions. Even so, the West does not see this issue in this way.

"The closer the Arak reactor comes to completion, the more attention it will receive from the West; the more attention it receives, the more the issue of Fordo and [uranium] enrichment to 20% will be pushed aside.

"Some diplomats estimate that the next round of [nuclear] talks with Iran will not take place before the fall of 2013, and by that time, the Arak reactor project will have advanced significantly. Thus, it is assumed that the next time the P5+1 sits down at the negotiating table with Iran, its priorities will have shifted, and it will have to focus on the [need] to reach a deal with Iran regarding the Arak reactor project, instead of discussing Fordo and [uranium] enrichment to 20%.

"Diplomats are assessing that the issue of Arak will soon be added to the P5+1's official proposals to Iran, and that in order for it to be realistic, any new proposal – which according to Western diplomats will be presented to Iran immediately after its [presidential] election – will have to include the issue of Arak.

"A diplomat in Tehran told []: 'Iran will step up the Arak project, and by doing so will change the course of the talks [with the P5+1]."[3]

*A. Savyon is Director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project; Y. Mansharof is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Fars (Iran), June 9, 2013.

[2] Press TV (Iran), June 6, 2013.

[3], June 10, 2013.

Share this Report: