Obama’s Plutonium Problem

Iran’s construction of its heavy water reactor near the city of Arak poses a grave danger to both the world and the region of the Middle East. Heavy water, formally called deuterium oxide, consists of one more neutron than simple water. Heavy water is the key ingredient by which plutonium can become the by-product of uranium in this type of nuclear reactor. It takes about ten kilograms of pure plutonium to make one atomic bomb. This can be accomplished in about one year using a 30-mega-watt heavy water reactor. Because of this, the production and distribution of heavy water is strictly controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Arak installation, once completed and fired up, will have the capacity to produce enough plutonium for one or two atomic bombs per year.
Since 2006, the UN Security Council has passed a series of resolutions which insist that Iran stop not only its enrichment of uranium, but also the construction of the heavy-water reactor at Arak. Iran refuses to do so. Formally known as the IR-40, construction of this heavy-water reactor has been held up numerous times because of the international sanctions placed on Iran. Unlike light-water reactors using normal water with enriched uranium as its fuel, the IR-40 will pose severe safety hazards for the Islamic Republic. First and foremost of these hazards is Iran’s inability to buy off-the-shelf parts for manufacturing of nuclear fuel for the heavy-water reactor. These parts are extremely fragile and require vast technical expertise and experience to achieve maximum safety. It is unclear as to the exact time frame when the IR-40 will be activated. Some experts claim it will be operational by the third quarter of 2014, others predict sometime in 2015.
The Iranians could delay the project because of serious safety concerns. They would probably be wise to do so. In fact, safety could become the barometer of Tehran’s intentions. As of this September, Iran has made only about 1/5 the amount of nuclear fuel needed to achieve full production. Iran faces two major hurdles. First, the fabrication of the nuclear fuel must be to high quality standards. Second, in order to know the fuel is high quality, it must be tested using high quality test standards. Iran falls short in both categories. With fuel fabrication, cladding becomes essential. Cladding is merely a fancy technical term for creating a seal or permanent barrier, in this case between the nuclear fuel and the coolant. The last thing any nuclear engineer wants is a radioactive contamination of the coolant. This is what happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Iran has chosen zirconium as its cladding material. This will allow for a much hotter reactor, but only if Iran can master the difficult process of extruding the zirconium (forcing it through dies).
Equally difficult for the Iranians will be the very precise manufacture of the nuclear fuel itself. The natural uranium fuel pellets are produced in Iran and must be strictly monitored for purity. The thousands of pellets loaded into the IR-40’s core must be identical. If they are not, or if the core tubing is not machined and welded to produce the utmost uniformity of package structure, irregularities can lead to the loss of fuel integrity. This could cause a serious core accident.
In every country in the world with a civilian program, nuclear regulators would require the testing of both the cladding material and the nuclear fuel. This is especially true for countries with limited technical experience. Iran certainly falls into that category. Yet it is unclear as to just exactly how Iran intends to proceed. Currently, Iran has no management system or test infrastructure to proceed with a testing regimen. The Iran Atomic Energy Association (AEOI) controls the development of the IR-40 reactor. However, the Iran Nuclear Regulatory Authority (INRA) is tasked with monitoring the safety of the facility. If INRA insists on testing, the delay time could be extensive. Also, the test could prove the nuclear fuel or cladding to be inferior. However, if no test are conducted and the IR-40 reactor is fired up in 2014, inadequate fuel or cladding could produce a disaster.
Either way, once the Arak facility goes operational, plutonium (reprocessed irradiated nuclear fuel) will be produced. Iran could then hypothetically destroy all its enrichment plants and concentrate instead on a plutonium based nuclear program. A military attack on an operational nuclear power plant would be catastrophic. At some point, perhaps before the third quarter 2014, the US will have to negotiate a deal over the IR-40, destroy it before it goes operational or let it be. President Obama will have to decide.
The testing issue could easily become a factor in the president’s decision. With an American hard-line approach to the IR-40 (a firm “no” to heavy-water nuclear power), Iran might very easily decide to move quickly without the proper tests. This would be an extreme gamble. Obama would be forced to decide — to bomb or not to bomb. But the likelihood that Obama will be hard-line is marginal. Instead, the American president is apt to take a more professorial track. Instead of giving the Iranians a firm ultimatum, Obama will most likely attempt to negotiate a perpetuity deal. He will allow the heavy-water reactor, with the proviso that international safeguards be without a time frame. In other words, both the inventory of the nuclear fuel and its irradiated waste by-product will be tightly monitored forever.
But Obama’s problem is that nothing is forever. As with nuclear enrichment, the monitoring procedures could be cancelled quickly. But while enrichment breakout times can be estimated with a certain degree of accuracy, uncertainty is the watchword with plutonium. It is highly unlikely that Israel or the Arab states will accept the idea of plutonium monitoring in perpetuity. Also, it is one thing to attack an enrichment facility, it is quite another to attack an activated heavy-water reactor.
Any negotiated deal that allows for the IR-40 to proceed will risk attack. The attack will most likely come sooner rather than later. President Obama is therefore faced with a catch-22 situation, to be hard-line on the Iranian heavy water nuclear program will most likely terminate the Iranian-American negotiations. However, if the American president is conciliatory toward the IR-40 reactor, a regional war is the most likely outcome. This presidential dilemma is the crux of Obama’s plutonium problem.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).