Russia to load fuel for Iranian reactor
MOSCOW -- Russia will load fuel into Iran's first nuclear power plant next week despite U.S. demands that Iran be prevented from obtaining nuclear energy until it proves it is not pursuing a weapons capacity, Russian and Iranian officials said Friday.
Uranium fuel shipped by Russia will be loaded into the Bushehr reactor Aug. 21, beginning a start-up process that will last about a month and end with the reactor sending electricity to Iranian cities, officials said.
"From that moment, the Bushehr plant will be officially considered a nuclear-energy installation," said Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for Russia's nuclear agency.
Russia signed a $1 billion contract in 1995 to build the Bushehr plant but has been slow to finish the project. It has cited technical reasons for the delays, but analysts say it has used the project to press Iran to ease its defiance over its nuclear program.
Russian officials say, however, that U.N. sanctions against Iran, including a new, more stringent set approved in June, do not directly prevent Moscow from going ahead with the Bushehr project. They have argued that the Bushehr project is essential for persuading Iran to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog and fulfill its obligations under international nuclear nonproliferation agreements.
Russian officials did not say why they had decided to move ahead with loading fuel into the Bushehr plant now.
The uranium fuel used at the Bushehr plant is enriched to a level too low to be used in a nuclear weapon. Iran is already producing uranium enriched to that level -- about 3.5 percent -- and has started a pilot program of enriching uranium to 20 percent. It says it needs the 20 percent-enriched uranium to produce fuel for a medical research reactor, but the move has further heightened concerns about its nuclear program.
Uranium must be enriched more than 90 percent for use in a nuclear warhead.
Iran's semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who also heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as saying that the country had invited International Atomic Energy Agency experts to watch the transfer of fuel, which was shipped about two years ago, into the Bushehr reactor.
"Fuel complexes are sealed (and being monitored by IAEA). Naturally, IAEA inspectors will be there to watch the unsealing," ISNA quoted Salehi as saying.
Russia has said that the Bushehr project has been closely supervised by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, which declined comment Friday. It also says Iran has signed a pledge to ship all the spent uranium fuel from Bushehr back to Russia for reprocessing, meaning none of it could be used to make nuclear weapons.
Russia is one of the six powers leading international efforts to ensure that Iran does not develop an atomic bomb. It has backed U.N. sanctions but strongly criticized the United States and the European Union for following up with separate, stronger sanctions.
-- Associated Press