By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 25, 2009 9:56 AM
TEHRAN, Feb. 25 -- The first nuclear power plant built in Iran was tested successfully by Iranian and Russian officials Wednesday, Iran said.
The power plant is projected to be fully operational by the end of this year.
"This, in simple terms, means that Bushehr power plant is completed today and its operation is definite," Gholamreza Aqazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told Iranian state television. "The political concerns about Bushehr plant are now completely addressed today."
The launch of operations at the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor near the southern Iranian port of Bushehr -- built with Russian assistance under a $1 billion contract -- had long been delayed over financial ambiguities as well as construction and supply glitches.
The plant is a highly symbolic facet of Iran's controversial nuclear program. The United States, Israel and some European nations have charged that Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons.
But Iranian leaders insist the country's nuclear ambitions are peaceful. Tehran points at regular energy shortages in the country as proof of the need for nuclear energy.
The test did not involve batches of low-enriched uranium supplied to Iran by the Atomstroiexport, the Russian state company that is building the plant. Instead "virtual" fuel was injected in the reactor, officials said.
"Once that fuel is placed, the main systems of the plant, particularly the primary circuit as well as support and auxiliary systems, are tested in order to find any defects before the complete commissioning," said Mohammad Sa'idi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization.
Western countries have criticized Russia over its support for the Iranian nuclear program. Russia says the plant is purely civilian, however, and cannot be used for any weapons program.
Russian officials say that once the uranium they have provided is used, the spent uranium has to be returned, so it cannot be used for other means.
Russia, together with China, has weakened Western-backed efforts in the United Nations Security Council to sanction Iran over its nuclear program.
Iran had stockpiled 2,227 pounds of low-enriched, or reactor-grade, nuclear fuel by late January, according to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency issued last week. That could be enough, physicists say, to make a single bomb if the fuel were enriched to a higher level.
Defenders say that to weaponize its program, Iran would have to take steps such as withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicking out international inspectors, breaking U.N. seals on batches of uranium and shutting down dozens of U.N. cameras that monitor nuclear sites across the country.
Sergey Kiriyenko, the Russian representative for the state company, told reporters Wednesday that the Bushehr plant should be producing energy for general use by the end of 2009.
"Thanks be to God, everything is going smoothly," Aqazadeh said. "We hope that within the next few months, the power generated by the plant will be distributed in the region."