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Iran, Russia test joint nuclear reactor in Tehran

Iran forges ahead with nuclear-power plans despite protests from the West. Officials maintain they have no plans to generate plutonium for a nuclear weapon.

February 26, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

TEHRAN — Iranian and Russian technicians Wednesday began testing the Islamic Republic's first nuclear reactor 35 years after on-and-off work started at the site near the Persian Gulf port city of Bushehr.

Iranian state news media said the 1,000-megawatt plant was being tested without the enriched-uranium fuel rods that Russia had shipped for the controversial facility over the last year and a half. Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters the plant would begin generating electricity after a trial stage that could last as long as seven months.

"Once the tests are completed, we will, God willing, produce 500 megawatts of power at the Bushehr power plant at this stage," said Aghazadeh, who appeared in Bushehr alongside Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's state-owned Rosatom nuclear technology company. "The political concerns about the Bushehr plant are now completely addressed."

The plant was supposed to begin producing electricity in 2006 under the terms of a $1-billion deal reached more than a decade ago between Moscow and Tehran, which is under pressure from the West to stop producing enriched uranium. Most analysts say Russia delayed completion of the plant in part to deflect pressure from the Bush administration and to extract concessions from the West.

Spent fuel rods from a nuclear power plant such as the one at Bushehr can yield plutonium, a potential fuel source for a nuclear weapon. U.S. and European officials worry that Moscow's cooperation on Bushehr, as well as its willingness to sell Iran advanced military equipment, will cause the leadership in Tehran to believe it can buck their demands to halt sensitive aspects of its nuclear program without risking international isolation.

The United States, Europe and Israel suspect that Iran is using its nuclear program as a cover for making weapons. Iran insists the enrichment is meant only for peaceful civilian purposes.

Iran's mastery of nuclear technology has also become wedded to national pride.

"We do not have any plans at all to build nuclear weapons," Aghazadeh told reporters. "If the West is concerned or surprised that a country like Iran has achieved all capabilities related to the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear know-how, then that has already happened, and it is their problem to find out how they could digest this."

Iran now has about 4,000 centrifuges producing uranium enriched at low levels, and 1,600 more have been installed at its facility in Natanz, which has the capacity for 50,000 centrifuges.

It already has amassed enough low-enriched uranium to create a single nuclear weapon if it decided to violate international arms control rules and begin further refining its declared stockpile, a move that could spark a major international confrontation.

American and European diplomats question the need for Iran to produce its own enriched uranium when it can buy fuel from other countries. But Iranian officials say Russia's delays convinced them of the need to develop their own enrichment capacity.

Aghazadeh said Wednesday that another plant near the southwestern town of Darkhovin, which Iranians say will be powered by enriched uranium from Natanz, is 60% complete. He said Iran hoped to eventually produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power, and he urged foreign companies to invest in its atomic industry.

Russia insists it will not allow any material to be diverted from the reactor at Bushehr, which remains under constant surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' arms control watchdog.

Iranian media reported that technicians inserted lead bars into the facility's light-water reactor, allowing scientists to test the plant's electrical circuitry, backup systems and ability to withstand extremes of temperature before inserting low-enriched uranium rods, which would produce electricity.

A report by Russia's Zvezda television station, which is run by the Defense Ministry, described Wednesday's testing as the last step before the reactor's launch.


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