Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was interviewed on Channel 4 TV (Iran) on January 22, 2019. He said that the negotiations surrounding the JCPOA had required Iran to destroy the Arak reactor's calandria by filling it with cement, but that Iran had secretly acquired replacement tubes ahead of time so that the reactor's functionality would not be ultimately affected. He also said that pictures that had circulated that showed the Arak reactor's pit filled with cement had been photoshopped. He explained that Iran has no intention to build a nuclear weapon, and that the Arak reactor is nonetheless incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. In addition, Salehi said that the yellowcake production facilities in Ardakan are operational and that Iran has been authorized to produce two additional IR-8 centrifuges. Salehi added that Iran has advanced rapidly in the field of nuclear propulsion.
Following are excerpts:
Interviewer: With regard to the heavy water reactor, we were told that its core was filled with cement. What is the story there?
Ali Akbar Salehi: In the Arak reactor, there is a pit. You can see the people standing around it. The calandria goes into this pit. That's where the fuel goes. We said that we should replace the calandria that goes into that pit.
Interviewer: What's "calandria" in Persian?
Ali Akbar Salehi: It's like a repository, where the fuel goes. We removed the repository that is supposed to contain the fuel. Because of the reconfiguration, the form of the repository should change as well. We are now building another repository that will be placed in the reactor's pit. Unfortunately, we have been saying for three years now that we had not poured cement into the pit of the Arak heavy water reactor. If we had, the Arak heavy water reactor would have been ruined.
Interviewer: But you did say that you had poured cement into the tubes…
Ali Akbar Salehi: Not into the tubes over there. We poured it into the calandria we pulled out [of the reactor]. Inside the calandria, there are tubes where the fuel goes. We had bought similar tubes, but I could not declare this at the time. Only one person in Iran knew this. We told no one but the top man of the regime [Khamenei]. When our team was in the midst of the negotiations, we knew that [the Westerners] would ultimately renege on their promises. The leader warned us that they were violators of agreements. We had to act wisely. Not only did we avoid destroying the bridges that we had built, but we also built new bridges that would enable us to go back faster if needed. There were a series of tubes, 3 or 4 meters long and 2 or 3 centimeters in diameter. You can imagine there tubes. They have a beginning and an end. We had bought the same quantity of similar tubes. When they told us to pour cement into the tubes, we did…
Interviewer: Who told you? The IAEA?
Ali Akbar Salehi: No, they said this during the negotiations, and we said: "Fine. We will pour [cement]." But we did not tell them that we had other tubes. Otherwise, they would have told us to pour cement into those tubes as well. Now we have the same tubes. They photoshopped cement being poured into the reactor's pit, and ever since, they have been saying that cement was poured into the reactor's pit. This is photoshopped. I am surprised that dear friends of ours… Even during a Friday sermon last week, it was said that we had poured cement into the reactor's pit. Reporters were there and saw it. You can take your cameras and go see for yourselves. So why are people saying this? Besides, people are talking as if the Arak reactor had been up and running… the Arak reactor had not been built at the time. We were in the process.
They said that our reactor in Arak could produce 8 kilograms of plutonium annually. These 8 kilograms are enough for the making of a [nuclear] weapon.
Interviewer: But you're saying that the [Arak reactor] had not yet become operational.
Ali Akbar Salehi: Right.
Interviewer: So how could they claim that it could produce 8 kilograms of plutonium?
Ali Akbar Salehi: No, if it reached… They said that if the reactor would be built and made operational, it would be able to produce 8 kilograms of plutonium. So they decided to do something to prevent this from happening. We said okay, but with one condition…
The design of the reactor was not ours. It was an old Russian model that we took and worked on. It was a model that was 50 or 60 years old. A good opportunity presented itself, so we said: "Okay." As for those 8 kilograms of plutonium… First, we do not intend to build a nuclear weapon. Second, this [reactor's] plutonium is not suitable for nuclear weapons.
Weapons-grade plutonium requires fewer of the other [isotopes]. When talking about plutonium, we mean Pu-239, Pu-240, and Pu-242. Pu-239 is the important [isotope for a nuclear weapon]. If Pu-240 and Pu-242 are present alongside Pu-239, the plutonium is not good [for nuclear weapons].
Even if this reactor were built and produced plutonium, it would simultaneously produce Pu-240 and Pu-242, and this would complicate matters. We would need to separate them out. Separating Pu-242 and Pu-240 from Pu-239… Plutonium is not like uranium. Today we can work with uranium. One has to work with plutonium behind hot cells, because it is poisonous.
We said: "Okay. We are ready to redesign this [reactor]." We saw that it was a good opportunity. We did this with the condition that they approve our new designs. I really felt that a golden opportunity had been created for us to redesign and renew the reactor according to new designs, and to decrease its [annual] plutonium production from 8 kilograms to one kilogram. And that's what happened.
This is the reactor's pit.
Interviewer: In Bushehr?
Ali Akbar Salehi: No, this is the Arak reactor.
Interviewer: The one we were talking about.
Ali Akbar Salehi: Yes.
Interviewer: The one they said they poured concrete into…
Ali Akbar Salehi: Right. The one they said has concrete in it.
God willing, in the coming week, on the 30th or 31st of January, I will be going to Ardakan. From there, we will transfer 30 tons of yellowcake to Isfahan. Thirty tons. Ardakan has become operational.
We can now turn our single IR-8 centrifuge into three. We are permitted to do so. But right now, we have only one. Our people advised us to wait for now. After all, we are working with our experts and have meetings once every few weeks. A few weeks ago we had a meeting, and we said that we can have three… That was a nuclear explosion… May we continue?
Interviewer: Sure, go ahead.
Ali Akbar Salehi: We have advanced significantly in the field of nuclear propulsion. However, we must wait until we are certain about it before we announce it.
For now, we have no intention to report about the nuclear propulsion [technology], but we are working on it. Suffice it to say that we are making rapid progress in this field, thank God.
The other side knows what nuclear propulsion is. We have acted in such a fashion that they cannot criticize us, and this is thanks to the vigilance and wisdom of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We are the only developing country in the world that has announced its intention to produce nuclear propellant.