By Thomas Erdbrink and Janine Zacharia
Sunday, August 22, 2010; A08
TEHRAN -- Iranian and Russian engineers began loading nuclear fuel into Iran's first atomic power plant Saturday amid international concern that the Islamic Republic is seeking a nuclear weapon.
State television showed what appeared to be fuel rods being loaded into the core of the reactor, which is on the shores of the Persian Gulf near Bushehr. The plant is one of the first tangible results of Iran's controversial nuclear program, which has been the target of increasingly tough international sanctions.
Overseen by Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the plant is not widely regarded a dangerous expansion of Iran's nuclear program. Russia is also supplying the uranium fuel for the plant, for 10 years, at an enrichment level well below what is needed for a nuclear weapon.
The plant has taken more than 35 years to build, with construction disrupted by the 1979 revolution, the war with Iraq in the 1980s and a decision by the original German contractor, Siemens, to pull out of the project.
"When a nation decides to live with freedom, it will finally reach its goal," Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told state media.
Rosatom, a Russian state nuclear corporation, helped finish the plant, which has cost Iran nearly $1 billion.
The Iranian government says its nuclear development is for peaceful purposes, such as electricity production and medical research. Although Iran says it has been open, the United States and its allies say the country has concealed parts of its nuclear fuel program, possibly to build a nuclear weapon, which Iran denies.
Iranian officials say they fear that outside pressure could ultimately force Russia to stop supplying nuclear fuel.
"We are looking for assurance of supply of fuel to the reactors," Salehi told reporters. He said Iran has had bad experiences with Germany and France, which had committed to starting up the reactor but later reneged.
"That was instrumental in making our government decide to have its own enrichment facilities in Iran," Salehi said. "We want to have the capacity and capability to assure the continuous supply of the fuel to the reactors."
The U.S. State Department said it did not view the plant as a proliferation risk but stressed its continued concerns about Iran's nuclear program. "Russia's support for Bushehr underscores that Iran does not need an indigenous enrichment capability if its intentions are purely peaceful," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
Israeli officials also said they were not particularly worried about the fuel being loaded into Bushehr. "Our problem is with the other facilities that they have, where they enrich uranium," Uzi Landau, Israel's minister of national infrastructure, said in an interview Thursday in Tel Aviv.
Unlike other nuclear successes, Iranian officials and state television refrained from huge celebrations Saturday. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not at the opening of the plant.
"Faced with international pressure, they are keeping a low profile," said Masallah Shamsolva'ezin, an analyst critical of the government. "Maybe they will need to make some kind of compromise in the future, so now might not be the time for nationalistic celebrations."
Zacharia reported from Jerusalem.