State Department Spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau Discusses U.S. Purchase of Heavy Water from Iran (Excerpts)

Daily Press Briefing
April 22, 2016

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


QUESTION: Thank you. Can we start with Iran --

MS TRUDEAU: Of course.

QUESTION: -- and the announcement that the U.S. Government is going to buy 32 tons of heavy water to Iran?


QUESTION: Could you just elaborate – what’s this contract about?


QUESTION: And just a technical question: What exactly is heavy water? And is it part of the JCPOA? And don’t you fear that politically at home, it will – you will be – the U.S. Administration will be accused again to please the Iran Government given the reaction of the Republicans this morning to this – to this deal?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay, so there’s a lot there. So let me start with some sort of broad information. I’ll answer your question on what is heavy water, because I had to – I had to get a little research on that, and then we can go on further.

So you’re correct, the U.S. Government, via the Department of Energy, is making a license purchase of 32 metric tons of heavy water from a subsidiary of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. This heavy water will fulfill a substantial portion of the U.S. domestic demand this year for industry and domestic research applications. This material is not radioactive and does not present safety concerns. This transaction provides U.S. industry with a critical product while also enabling Iran to sell some of its excess heavy water, as contemplated in the JCPOA. Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA meant this material had already been removed from Iran, ensuring it would not be used to support the development of a nuclear weapon.

Our purchase of the heavy water means it will instead be used for critically important research in non-nuclear industrial requirements here in the United States. We expect the heavy water to be delivered to the U.S. in the coming week, initially stored at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and then resold to – at commercially reasonable prices to domestic commercial and research buyers.

So on technical details about what heavy water is and details on its implementation, I’m going to refer you to the Department of Energy, but I will say heavy water is used in the development, production, and sale of compounds used in chemistry, biomedical and diagnostic research, environmental analysts, and physics.

So I know you had a question too on U.S. domestic reaction, and our response would be no. This was actually an allowable event that happened. So the U.S. was under no obligation to purchase heavy water from Iran, nor is it obligated to do so in the future, but the JCPOA required Iran to reduce its heavy water inventory below the 130 metric ton limit. One way to do that was to sell the excess to countries or companies. And I’d just note in the future it’s possible other countries may wish to purchase that. This was a purchase that was arranged through the Department of Energy for that.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MS TRUDEAU: Of course you can, Pam.

QUESTION: Thank you. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce was – is among those who have been critical, saying the deal actually encourages Iran to produce more heavy water to sell. House Speaker Paul Ryan also had some criticism, saying it seemed to be part of an effort to sweeten the nuclear deal with Iran and would directly subsidize Iran’s nuclear program. Is there a State concern about this criticism in that the U.S. may be seen as enabling Iran with this purchase?

MS TRUDEAU: No. This limit ensures Iran cannot stockpile heavy water for use in a covert reaction. The IAEA’s monitoring and verification measures will ensure that we know if Iran attempts to exceed the limit or divert any of the heavy water for illicit production of plutonium. So, no.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary discuss this with Saudi officials and with other GCC members ahead of the purchase? And if so, what was their reaction?

MS TRUDEAU: So I’d say the discussions regarding this commercial transaction have been ongoing for some time, primarily between the Department of Energy and their Iranian counterparts. And while the contracts were signed today in Vienna, this was a bilateral transaction between the U.S. and Iran.