Iran began loading fuel into its first nuclear power plant today, moving closer to its opening in the face of Western fears over its eventual plans for weapons.
The government sees the completion of the plant, built with the help of Russia, as a show of defiance against UN Security Council sanctions against its nuclear programme.
A leak in a storage pool delayed the operation for months and Iran now says the 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant will begin generating electricity in early 2011.
Originally there had been speculation that the delay was caused by a computer worm found on the laptops of several plant employees.
The US withdrew its opposition to the plant after Russia satisfied concerns over how it would be fuelled and the fate of the spent fuel rods.
Under a deal signed in 2005, Russia will provide nuclear fuel to Iran, then take back the spent fuel, a step meant as a safeguard to ensure it cannot be diverted into a weapons programme. Iran has also agreed to allow the UN’s nuclear agency to monitor the Bushehr plant and the fuel deliveries.
Worries remain, however, over Iran’s programme to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel since the process can also be used to create weapons grade material.
The United States claims that the fuel deal with Russia shows Tehran does not need uranium enrichment, but Iran maintains it will build other nuclear power plants and needs its own fuel source.
Iran is already producing its own nuclear fuel – uranium enriched to about 3.5%. It also has started a pilot program of enriching uranium to 20%, which it claims is needed for a medical research reactor.
Weapons grade material has to be enriched to 90%.
The Bushehr project dates backs to 1974, when Iran’s then ruler Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi contracted with the German company Siemens to build the reactor. The company withdrew from the project after the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the shah and brought hardline clerics to power.
In 1992, Iran signed a billion-dollar deal with Russia to complete the project and work began in 1995.
Under the contract, the Bushehr nuclear power plant was originally scheduled to come on stream in July 1999 but the start up has been delayed repeatedly by construction and supply glitches.
Moscow has cited technical reasons for the delays, but Iranian officials have sporadically criticised Russia, some calling Moscow an “unreliable partner.”
The Bushehr plant overlooks the Persian Gulf and is visible from several miles away with its cream-coloured dome dominating the green landscape.
Soldiers maintain a 24-hour watch on roads leading up to it, manning anti-aircraft guns, supported by radar stations.