Iran enters the global market for nuclear materials

26 April 2016

The US is buying 32t of Iranian heavy water to help Iran meet the terms of last July's landmark nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement was signed on 22 April in Vienna between Iran and officials from the six countries that negotiated the nuclear deal - E3/EU+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the USA plus the European Union). It calls for the US Department of Energy's (DOE's) Isotope Program to purchase the heavy water from a subsidiary of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) for about $8.6m, officials said. They said the heavy water will be stored at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and then resold on the commercial market for research purposes.

Under the nuclear deal, Iran is allowed to use heavy water in its modified Arak nuclear reactor, but must sell any excess supply of both heavy water and enriched uranium on the international market. The July accord specifies that Iran must keep its supplies of heavy water below 130t during the initial years of the deal, and under 90t later. But US officials said Iran has been struggling to find buyers for the material on the international market and that its stockpile is at risk of rising above that level, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported. The US hopes its initial purchase will give other countries the confidence to purchase Iran's heavy water in the coming years.

"We're securing material that will allow us to do great science," says ORNL director Thom Mason. DOE will resell a portion to industry for uses such as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging and protecting optical fibres and semiconductors against deterioration by blasting them with deuterium gas. DOE will also send 6t to Oak Ridge for an upgrade of the Spallation Neutron Source, the world's most powerful accelerator-driven machine for generating neutrons for research.

"The idea is: OK, we tested it, it's perfectly good heavy water. It meets spec. We'll buy a little of this," US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told the WSJ. "That will be a statement to the world: 'You want to buy heavy water from Iran, you can buy heavy water from Iran. It's been done. Even the United States did it'." Moniz said he saw the US government making only one purchase of the heavy water, but American companies could emerge as regular buyers of the material in the future. "We're not going to be their customer forever," he said. "Maybe some companies in the US will be part of that customer base. They've got to figure it out. [The Iranians] have to establish their presence on the international market if they're going to keep producing [heavy water]."

The USA relinquished its own heavy water production capacity in 1981, when DOE shuttered the heavy water plant at Savannah River National Laboratory in Georgia for economic reasons. Canada and India currently supply most of the global demand for non-nuclear uses, about 100t a year. A single pound of reactor-grade heavy water, which is 99.75% D2O, requires a staggering 340,000 pounds of purified feed water. The US buys about 75%, and demand is increasing. "Heavy water has been on our radar screen for some time," a DOE official said, according to the WSJ. Savannah River has already tested samples of Iran's heavy water, confirming it is top quality.

Mason said one of his research facilities, the Spallation Neutron Source, was being converted to use heavy water instead of light water. He said Iran emerged as a good supplier after plans to buy heavy water elsewhere fell through. "Heavy water isn't made in the US," Mason said. "It was fortuitous in terms of timing."

The heavy water purchase could open the door to other nuclear trade for Iran. According to the nuclear agreement, Iran's Fordow uranium enrichment facility is to become an international science and technology centre. Russia is reconfiguring uranium-enrichment centrifuges at the facility to produce iridium-191; adding a neutron at the reconfigured Arak reactor would yield iridium-192, which is used in gamma cameras to check for structural flaws in metal. Following the heavy water deal, Moniz says he has asked DOE rank-and-file "to begin thinking about other areas of collaboration".

In support of the July agreement, Iran last December sold 11t of low-enriched uranium to Russia and Kazakhstan and received in return 140t of natural uranium (yellowcake) from Russia and 60t from Kazakhstan. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in July 2015 by Iran and the E3/EU+3, Iran is permitted to stockpile no more than 300kg on enriched uranium. Russia considering buying 40t of heavy water from Iran, according to Iranian reports. On 25 April Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Foreign Ministry department for non-proliferation and arms control told Interfax: "We are indeed studying this possibility."

Earlier in April Iran also signed a co-operation agreement with the European Union (EU). According to a 17 April statement, the European Commission (EC) and the AEOI are to cooperate "in fulfilment of measures set out in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action".

The scope of the cooperation is to include an annual high-level meeting to review topics of common interest in the nuclear field, including nuclear safety, radiation protection, emergency preparedness and response, the management of radioactive waste and used fuel, nuclear research and development, and non-power applications of nuclear energy.

The first activities will take place this year, under an EU-funded project to enhance the capabilities of the Iran Nuclear Regulatory Authority (INRA). The project will include cooperation on the stress test process for existing and planned nuclear power stations; a feasibility study for establishing a nuclear safety centre in Iran; support to INRA to review jointly the country's regulatory framework, taking into account lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident; providing training for nuclear safety professionals; and collaboration in outreach activities such as the organization of an international conference on nuclear safety.

Other possible areas of cooperation listed in the statement include joint fission and fusion research activities, including bilateral cooperation between research centres and cooperation with the ITER fusion project.

The AEOI is also considering plans for cooperation with Czech Republic and Slovakia to build NPPs in the Islamic Republic, Iranian atomic Behrooz Kamalvandi said on 24 April. AEOI Director Ali Akbar Salehi will visit Central Europe before the end of April to discuss the issue with Czech and Slovak officials. Kamlvandi said Iran is seeking cooperation with those counties that enjoy proper capacities in nuclear energy.



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