As visitors to the “White House website”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/Nowruz/ know, today is the Zoroastrian new year, No Ruz (“New Day”), which is celebrated by pretty much all Iranians. It marks the vernal equinox, the transition between seasons.
“According to the Iranian Students News Agency”:http://isna.ir/Isna/NewsView.aspx?ID=News-1307413&Lang=E, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) plans to mark the occasion by formally inaugurating the Fuel Manufacturing Plant (FMP) in Isfahan. It’s already partly operational:
The plant is in a good condition and is able to produce nuclear fuel assemblies for Iran’s Arak 40-megawatt research reactor which is to be launched within the next two or three years, [deputy AEOI chief Abdullah Solatasana] added.
The Plant is able to produce nuclear fuel assemblies for Iran’s Bushehr and Darkhovin power plants respectively with 1000 and 360 megawatts capability, Solatasana said.
The Head of (AEOI) Gholam Reza Aghazadeh has already declared nuclear fuel tablets for Arak reactor have been produced according to global standards.
(On that last point, see also paragraph 10 of “the latest IAEA report”:http://www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/IAEA_Report_Iran_Feb_2009.pdf.)
So where does this transition take the situation? It makes matters worse in the medium run, but if the Iranians play it smart, it could also ease the immediate atmosphere of crisis.
The bad news is, the Arak reactor is ideally suited for plutonium production, “as Robert Einhorn has explained”:http://www.armscontrol.org/pressroom/2006/20061109_Einhorn. Preparing Arak’s natural uranium (NU) fuel at the FMP moves events closer to the “North Korea-style confrontation, ca. 1994”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/10/AR2006101001285.html that hovers on the horizon.
The good news is, the same facility could be used to relax the already acute tensions over the enrichment of uranium. “Scott Kemp recently pointed this out”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/15/weekinreview/15SANGER.html to the _New York Times_:
If Iran wanted to ease jitters, it could do something very simple: turn its enriched uranium into reactor fuel.
“We’d hope they’d do it unilaterally, and maybe they will,” R. Scott Kemp, a nuclear expert at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, said in an interview. So far, though, Iran has foregone that step and keeps the door open to further enrich a growing uranium supply.
Now, nobody with intact critical faculties really thinks the so-called fuel enrichment plant at Natanz was originally meant to make enriched reactor fuel, and if the idea is energy production, there’s certainly little point in operating it today. Russia supplies the fuel for Bushehr, and completing the Darkhovin reactor hasn’t been a high priority, “as Frank Pabian has pointed out”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2129/frank-pabian-on-iran-syria. In any case, Iran lacks the uranium to fuel either of these reactors. But going ahead anyway and turning low-enriched uranium (LEU) into fuel rods would materially demonstrate “what Iranian spokesmen”:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B01E0DD113EF936A15756C0A9609C8B63&n=Top%2FReference%2FTimes%20Topics%2FOrganizations%2FU%2FUnited%20Nations%20&scp=10&sq=m.a.%20mohammadi&st=cse “have repeatedly asserted”:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C01E7DB1731F93BA35751C1A9609C8B63&scp=8&sq=m.a.%20mohammadi&st=cse “about the peaceful”:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0DE1DA143FF937A25755C0A9619C8B63&sec=&spon=&scp=9&sq=m.a.%20mohammadi&st=cse “nature of the”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/04/opinion/lweb04iran.html?scp=1&sq=m.a.%20mohammadi&st=cse “nuclear project”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/opinion/l03iran.html?scp=3&sq=m.a.%20mohammadi&st=cse. And that would buy time for everyone involved.
Cross-posted to “ArmsControlWonk.com”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2225/irans-equinox-fmp-comes-online. See the “comments at ACW”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2225/irans-equinox-fmp-comes-online#comment.