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Heavy water is used in certain types of nuclear reactors where it acts as a neutron moderator to slow down neutrons so that they can react with the uranium in the reactor. The CANDU reactor uses this design. Light water also acts as a moderator but because light water absorbs neutrons, reactors using light water must use enriched uranium rather than natural uranium, otherwise criticality is impossible.
Because heavy water reactors can use natural uranium, it is of concern in efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. Heavy water production reactors can be designed to turn uranium into bomb-usable plutonium without requiring enrichment facilities. Heavy water production reactors have been used for this purpose by India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia and USA. There is no evidence that heavy water power reactors, such as the CANDU design, have been used for military plutonium production.
Due to its potential for use in nuclear weapons programs, heavy water is subject to government control in several countries. Suppliers of heavy water and heavy water production technology typically apply IAEA administered safeguards and material accounting to heavy water. (In Australia, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987).