Reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Iran on Tuesday began loading nuclear fuel rods into the core of its first nuclear power plant, bringing the facility a step closer to producing electricity, Iranian state television reported.
The start of the weeks-long process lends credence to Iranian claims that a high-profile computer virus attack this year did not significantly postpone the launch of the nuclear plant near the southern city of Bushehr. After years of delay, the facility, 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 undergo tests.
"We hope that nuclear electricity would enter the national grid within the next three months," said Ali Akbar Salehi, chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
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 was later absorbed into German industrial giant Siemens; more recently, work was done 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 on Tehran's nuclear program, but they insisted that the virus had not affected Bushehr's controls.
U.S., European and Israeli officials worry that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program to mask the illegal pursuit of atomic weapons or at least the ability to produce them, and have declared no option off the table in their attempt to halt the effort.
Iranian officials insist that their 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. Previous talks 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, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters Tuesday.
Experts discount the possibility that Iran could extract plutonium from the Bushehr reactor's spent fuel rods to build a nuclear weapon, a method that has been employed by nuclear powers.
But Western officials worry that a successful launch of the reactor could encourage Iran to shrug off international sanctions meant to isolate it over its nuclear program. On the other hand, 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, to construct 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 Salehi watching footage of a robotic arm moving metallic objects inside the reactor.