Oak Ridge National Laboratory last year provided scientific and technical expertise to the team that negotiated the Iranian nuclear agreement in Vienna, and the lab is now reaping benefits from that historic accord.
The Obama administration, according to multiple news reports, is buying 32 tons of heavy water from Iran. Heavy water is a key component in development of nuclear weapons and can be used in certain types of nuclear reactors that produce plutonium, and the deal — estimated at $8.6 million — will reportedly help Iran meet commitments for reducing its stockpile of weapons-making material.
The United States does not currently have a source for producing heavy water, and the deal with Iran will help meet a number of needs.
ORNL has been asked to store the newly acquired supply of heavy water, which is water laden with deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen. The Oak Ridge lab houses the Department of Energy’s Isotope Business Office, and it will sell quantities of heavy water to qualified buyers.
Besides that, the lab will use several tons of the heavy water to bolster capabilities at the Spallation Neutron Source, a world-class research facility that produces neutrons for experiments that explore the structure and behavior of materials.
According to ORNL Director Thom Mason, the use of heavy water will greatly enhance the neutron intensity at the SNS and add to the research potential.
Mason said the Spallation Neutron Source plans to use heavy water in cooling loops around the liquid mercury target. The target is pounded by a powerful proton team many times a second — each time ejecting trillions of neutrons that are channeled to research stations for material studies.
ORNL wanted to use heavy water when the Spallation Neutron Source began operations in 2006 and thereafter, but the lab was unable to acquire the necessary amount of high-quality heavy water.
About seven tons of heavy water was acquired years ago from DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, but that was only a third of what was needed. The Y-12 nuclear weapons plant rejected ORNL’s request for heavy water, indicating it couldn’t spare any of its supply.
Mason said the heavy water will be introduced at SNS in 2017, probably sometime between March and July, when operators replace the “inner reflector plug” that surrounds the target.
Much heat is generated in the area where the proton beam strikes the target vessel.
For the first 10 years of operation, the SNS has used light water in that cooling system. However, there are inherent problems using H2O, because it absorbs neutrons.
By substituting heavy water, the system will generate 10 to 20 percent more neutrons, Mason said, and generally speaking more neutrons mean better science.
That’s a huge performance gain for a relatively small cost, the ORNL director said. He called the availability of heavy water from Iran “fortuitous.”
The boost in neutron production will enhance the ability to perform new experiments with materials, and it will also allow some experiments to be completed more quickly. That will free up more time with some of the SNS research instruments, which are already oversubscribed, Mason said.
The Department of State and the Energy Department said the sales agreement with Iran would be signed Friday in Vienna by officials from the six countries that negotiated the nuclear deal.
DOE’s Isotope Business Office will purchase the heavy water from a subsidiary of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, for about $8.6 million, officials said.
Heavy water, formed with a hydrogen isotope, is not radioactive but has research and medical applications and can also be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. 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.
Iranian news agencies reported in early March that a deal would soon be finalized. Members of Congress on Friday were criticizing the deal as another example of the Obama administration giving Iran more that it is entitled to. Those concerns have been fueled by indications the administration may be preparing to ease financial restrictions on transactions involving Iran.
Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet Friday with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss Iranian complaints that it is not getting the sanctions relief it deserves under the nuclear accord.
The Energy Department said the heavy water purchase does not go beyond the scope of the nuclear agreement, and stressed that future purchases were not automatic.
“The United States will not be Iran’s customer forever,” DOE said in a statement. “It is exclusively Iran’s responsibility to find a way to meet its (nuclear deal) commitments, whether that is by selling, diluting or disposing of future stocks of heavy water to remain within the (deal’s) limit.”
That did not sway congressional Republicans.
“Once again, the Obama administration is handing Iran’s radical regime more cash,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “U.S. purchase of this sensitive material goes well beyond what is required by the nuclear agreement. Far from curbing its nuclear program, this encourages Iran to produce more heavy water to sell — with a stamp of U.S. approval — on the international market.”
House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the heavy water purchase sets a “dangerous precedent.”
Administration officials have repeatedly said the Republican concern is misplaced and denied speculation, fueled in part by comments Kerry himself made after his first meeting with Zarif on Tuesday, that any changes are coming. But, officials said Kerry would likely use the Friday meeting to remind Iranian officials and foreign banks and businesses that certain once-prohibited transactions with Iran are now allowed under U.S. law.
“They will continue to talk about the sanctions relief process, and the degree to which banks, foreign and domestic, as well as institutions foreign and domestic, are evaluating their options under the (nuclear deal) and the degree to which they have before them a sufficient level of understanding to make decisions with respect to sanctions relief,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Other officials said Kerry might encourage foreign financial institutions to take advantage of new opportunities with Iran afforded by the sanctions relief. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Iran, as well as European and Asian banks, wants financial restrictions eased, or at the very least, clarified. Despite the relief it was given in the nuclear deal, Iran remains under numerous U.S. sanctions related to its ballistic missile activity, support for terrorism and human rights abuses.
The Obama administration acknowledges that some sanctions relief has been slow. The administration has ruled out giving Iran access to the U.S. financial system.
This post was compiled from my interviews and background reports, as well as a news story filed today by Matthew Lee, the Associated Press diplomatic writer.