As nuclear talks come and go (and come again) and media outlets grasp at straws as far as particulars are concerned, arms control experts stand out these days as a focused and informed voice in blogs and the social media. Their issue: the plutonium route.
Arms Control Wonk’s Mark Hibbs, for example, reminds Iran watchers that once completed, the IR40 facility could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium to make one nuclear weapon a year. This serves as a pertinent reminder that while Iran and the P5+1 play a tug-of-war over 20 percent enriched uranium (the production of which Iran recently denied it had halted), the second track toward a nuclear weapon – the possibility of plutonium production at Arak – still needs to be addressed.
Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), meanwhile, recently noted that “all nuclear-armed countries” have pursued both the uranium and plutonium routes toward a nuclear weapon. In his opinion, Iran could “probably” produce a plutonium nuclear device by the end of 2016.
Seems that while 46 countries operate research reactors, only four reportedly use heavy water reactors (which are more difficult to operate) – the rest purchase medical isotopes, rather than producing them independently. In this context, Fitzpatrick updates that Iran rejected a rare, private sector offer of a guaranteed supply of such isotopes – choosing instead to continue building a heavy-water reactor so large that it is comparable only to the reactors used by both India and North Korea to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Fitzpatrick believes that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be tipped off to the possibility of increased plutonium production by the operation schedule of the Arak reactor. Hope he’s right. Let’s also hope media coverage widens its scope of coverage of nuclear talks in the next week to include the plutonium route issue.