A once-secret nuclear facility deep under a mountain near Iran’s holy city of Qom is slated to become one of the world’s most unusual international research centers. A plutonium-producing reactor will be reengineered and downsized. And enough enriched uranium to make several atomic bombs will be removed or diluted. These and other technical elements of the action plan on Iran’s nuclear program announced yesterday seek a delicate balance: preventing Iran from building an atomic arsenal while allowing it to retain significant nuclear R&D.
A final agreement, in which Iran will dismantle parts of its nuclear program and accept international inspections in return for the lifting of international sanctions, isn’t due until the end of June. But the technical fixes announced yesterday have raised hopes that negotiators will be able to reach a final agreement. “It’s great that they persevered, with all the opposition,” says Frank von Hippel, a physicist and arms control expert at Princeton University.
The goal of the United States and its negotiating partners is to slow Iran’s “breakout time”—the timescale of a crash effort to porduce enough weapons-grade fissle material for one bomb—from an estimated 2 to 3 months to at least a year. One major bone of contention has been the Arak heavy water reactor. Iranian officials say the chief aim of the 40-megawatt fission reactor, under construction in the central province of Markazi, is to make radioisotopes for medicine. But simply running the reactor on its natural uranium fuel would yield about 10 kilograms of plutonium a year, enough for one or two atomic bombs. To greatly reduce the amount of plutonium generated in Arak’s spent fuel, von Hippel and others had proposed changing the fuel to low-enriched uranium (LEU), which would greatly curtail plutonium production.