The U.S. will buy $8.6 million of heavy water from Iran's nuclear program, a move which drew immediate Republican criticism.
The U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, will buy 32 metric tonnes of heavy water from Iran worth $8.6 million, a department spokeswoman said. Heavy water is a component of making nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, that is not radioactive. Under last year's landmark nuclear deal between Iran, the United States and five other world powers, Tehran is responsible for reducing its stock of heavy water, which it can sell, dilute or dispose of, under conditions. Iran is permitted to keep up to 130 tonnes of heavy water at present and up to 90 tonnes once its redesigned and rebuilt Arak nuclear research reactor is commissioned. "The United States will not be Iran's customer forever," the DOE spokeswoman said. U.S. officials hope the purchase will pave the way for other countries to buy the heavy water, which can be used in the development of semiconductors and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, who discussed the sale with U.S. officials in Vienna on Friday, told reporters that the 32 tonnes have been sold to an American company.
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 is 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.
After the deal was concluded, the DOE realized that buying some of the heavy water also makes sense, says U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. The United States relinquished its own production capacity in 1981, when DOE shuttered a heavy water plant at Savannah River National Laboratory in Georgia to save money. These days, Canada and India satisfy most of the global demand for nonnuclear uses, about 100 tons a year, by distilling heavy water from feed water, like brandy from wine. A single pound of reactor-grade heavy water, which is 99.75% D2O, requires a staggering 340,000 pounds of purified feed water. U.S. buyers snap up about 75%, and appetite is increasing. “Heavy water has been on our radar screen for some time,” says a DOE official.