On November 13, the Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) has published a report about ongoing construction activities at the heavy water reactor site near the city of Arak in western Iran. The report provides, for comparison, satellite pictures from October 2008 and February 2007. Clearly, some buildings around the reactor dome have been finished in the meantime.
Heavy water moderated nuclear plants can be fueled with non-enriched uranium, so there might be less risk for nuclear proliferation. On the other hand, plutonium and tritium are produced as by-products which might be used in nuclear weapons. According to ISIS President David Albright and Paul Brannan, the reactor, if eventually operating optimally, could produce nine kilograms plutonium per year, enough for about one or two nuclear weapons. Iran has always denied that it is building a separation and reprocessing facility from the reactor’s irradiated fuel. Officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have repeatedly reported that it would take until 2011 or even 2013 when the reactor in Arak will eventually be completed. Albright and Brannan now suggest that Iran might have decided to speed-up the construction works. An Iranian official has even admitted some time ago that the site might be ready for fuelling in 2009.
The ISIS report comes at a time of certain alert. Israel’s attack of a possible nuclear site at Al Kibar in the Syrian desert in September 2007 might in fact have been an exercise and prelude of an air strike at Arak. That Israel might consider such a strike during the transition period between the US American elections on November 4 and President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20 next year has been a matter of speculation for some time. The satellite pictures of ISIS indeed resemble those published before and after the attack of Al Kibar (and bulldozing by Syrian cleanup efforts).
In June 1981, Israel destroyed, in an air strike, for the first time on foreign territory, a heavy water nuclear facility under construction, the Osiraq reactor near Baghdad, Iraq. Ironically, the heavy water Osiraq reactor was of the same type as Israel’s French-designed reactor at the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona, which was constructed in 1958 and provided the country with sufficient plutonium for establishing its status as (unofficial) nuclear power.