By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has postponed until 2014 the planned start-up of a research reactor which Western experts say could potentially offer the Islamic Republic a second route to produce material for a nuclear bomb, a U.N. report showed.
Tehran has continued to install cooling and moderator circuit piping in the heavy water plant near the town of Arak. Nuclear analysts say this type of reactor could yield plutonium for nuclear arms if the spent fuel is reprocessed, something Iran has said it has no intention of doing.
But the country has now delayed the planned timetable for bringing Arak on line by about half a year from the third quarter of 2013, according to the latest U.N. information in a confidential report submitted to member states late on Friday.
"Iran stated that the operation of the IR-40 reactor was now expected to commence in the first quarter of 2014," the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report said.
It gave no reason for the postponement, but Western experts have said a launch already next year always seemed unrealistic.
The Arms Control Association, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said it was questionable whether Iran would be able to meet the new target date as well, in view of "significant delays and impeded access to necessary materials" because of international sanctions imposed on Iran.
The West's worries about Iran are focused largely on underground uranium enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow, but experts say Arak is also a possible proliferation concern.
Iran rejects Western allegations it seeks to develop a capability to assemble atomic arms, saying its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and that the Arak reactor will produce isotopes for medical and agricultural use.
But former chief U.N. nuclear inspector Olli Heinonen, now at Harvard University, said Arak was "ill-suited" for isotope production. Plutonium from Arak would be available at the earliest in 2016-17 if a reprocessing plant was built, he said.
Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, sees Iran's nuclear program as a serious danger and has threatened to attack its atomic sites if diplomacy fails to resolve the decade-old dispute.
If it does, the nuclear sites at Natanz, Fordow and Arak in central Iran are likely to be among the targets.
NO REPROCESSING PLANS
Friday's quarterly IAEA report showed Iran pressing ahead with expanding its uranium enrichment program at Fordow and Natanz in defiance of tightening Western sanctions.
The report, issued 10 days after U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election raised hope of a revival of diplomacy following months of speculation that Israel might soon attack Iran's nuclear sites, underlined the tough task facing Western powers seeking to pressure Tehran to curb its atomic activities. Continued...