Reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Iran began loading fuel rods into the core of its first nuclear power plant Tuesday, bringing the facility a step closer to producing electricity, Iranian state television reported.
The start of the weeks-long process lends credence to Iranian assertions that a high-profile computer virus attack earlier this year did not significantly postpone the operation of the plant near the southern city of Bushehr. After years of delay, the power plant, built in part by Russian engineers, is scheduled to produce electricity early next year after all 163 of its fuel rods are moved into the reactor core and tested.
The 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant has been under construction since before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. It was first contracted to a company that later became German industrial giant Siemens and more recently was being built with the help of Russia's state-owned atomic energy company.
Iranian officials acknowledged this year that a powerful computer virus called Stuxnet, which appeared to be designed to attack Siemens industrial equipment, had infected computers of engineers working for its nuclear program, but insisted that it had not affected Bushehr's controls.
United States, European and Israeli officials worry that Iran is using a civilian nuclear program to mask an internationally illegal pursuit of atomic weapons, or at least the ability to produce them, and have declared that no option is off the table in their attempt to halt the program.
Iranian officials insist that their nuclear program is meant only for civilian purposes and accuse the West of using the issue as part of a broader ideological war against the Islamic Republic.
European Union foreign policy coordinator Catherine Ashton has invited Iranian officials to meet counterparts from the U.S., Western Europe, Russia and China for diplomatic talks next month in an attempt to resume negotiations that ended a year ago with the collapse of a proposal to exchange the bulk of Iran's nuclear fuel supply for plates to power an ailing Tehran medical reactor.
Iran has not yet decided to attend the meeting, Ramin Mehmanparast, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters Tuesday.
Experts discount the possibility that Iran could extract plutonium from the reactor's spent fuel rods to build a nuclear weapon, a method that has been employed by nuclear powers.
But Western officials worry that successful operation of the reactor could invigorate Iran to shrug off international sanctions meant to isolate it over its nuclear program. American officials say Bushehr also demonstrates that Iran can buy nuclear fuel from other countries and does not need to produce its own enriched uranium, which can be used to fuel a power plant or, if highly purified, a bomb.
Iranian state media, including English- and Arabic-language satellite outlets, trumpeted the achievement as a top news item. Arabic-language Al-Alam showed Iran's Atomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi looking from a balcony at a robotic arm moving metallic objects.