DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran is prepared to modify its planned Arak heavy water reactor to help allay Western concerns, its atomic energy chief said in published remarks that may signal a readiness by Tehran to compromise on the thorny issue.
Western powers, preparing for negotiations with Iran on a long-term deal defining the scope of its disputed nuclear programme, fear Arak could provide a supply of plutonium - one of two materials, along with highly enriched uranium, that can be used for the core of a nuclear weapon - once operational.
The Islamic Republic has said the reactor is designed to produce isotopes for medical treatments, and has denied that any of its nuclear activity is geared to developing a bomb.
The future of the site, near the town of Arak, some 250 km (155 miles) southwest of the capital Tehran, is expected to be one of the most difficult issues to resolve in the negotiations on a long-term nuclear deal with Iran due to begin on February 18.
In an interview with Iran’s state-run Press TV, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, said he did not believe Western concerns over Arak were genuine, calling them a “fabricated fire” used to put Iran under political pressure.
But he added: “We can do some design change ... in order to produce less plutonium in this reactor, and in this way allay the worries and mitigate the concerns.” He did not elaborate.
Heavy water reactors, which are fuelled by natural uranium rather than the enriched uranium used in light water reactors, are seen as especially suitable for yielding plutonium. To do so, however, a nuclear reprocessing plant would also be needed to extract the plutonium. Iran is not known to have any such facility and says it has no intention of building one.
The fate of Arak was a big sticking point in talks last year that led to a landmark agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for some easing of sanctions.
Under the November 24 accord, Iran pledged not to install any additional reactor components or produce fuel for the plant during the six-month period of the deal.
U.S. officials have made clear the reactor must be dealt with under any final settlement. “They do not need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear programme,” Wendy Sherman, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, told lawmakers in Washington on Tuesday.
Sherman also questioned Iran’s need to have another nuclear plant, a uranium enrichment site buried underground at Fordow.
Her remarks drew an angry response from Iran, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rejecting them as “worthless” and saying its atomic technology was non-negotiable.
Nearly 200 Iranian legislators called Sherman’s statement offensive and signed a statement urging the Iranian government to file a strong response, Press TV reported on Thursday.
Iran has already built a heavy water production plant that is to be linked to the still unfinished Arak reactor.
Some Western experts have suggested a possible way forward might be to reconfigure the heavy water reactor into a light water reactor, which experts say would be much less amenable to any attempt at nuclear proliferation.
But Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group thinktank, said Salehi was talking about converting the core of the reactor so that it produces less plutonium, not about turning the plant itself into a light water facility.
“Given the technical challenges in completing the reactor and political hurdles in scrapping it, this is an appealing midway solution for the Iranians,” Vaez said.
Nuclear expert Mark Hibbs said other Iranian officials had previously said there could be technical modifications of Arak.
But the fact that it is now being mentioned by someone as senior as Salehi “means that the technical modification route ... could become something more than just one of a number of options for addressing the Arak dilemma”, said Hibbs, of the Carnegie Endowment thinktank.
Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Writing by William Maclean and Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Robin Pomeroy