A worker stands in the Bushehr nuclear power plant in this August 2010 photo.… (Ebrahim Norouzi, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Fuel that would power Iran's first nuclear energy facility is being removed from the reactor this weekend because of unspecified safety concerns, Iranian officials have disclosed, a setback for the country's controversial nuclear program.
A short statement late Friday from Iran's representative to the United Nations nuclear monitoring agency said fuel rods were being withdrawn from the Bushehr power plant, which has been under construction since the mid-1970s and is a symbol of pride for the Iranian government.
"Based on the recommendation of Russia, which is in charge of completing the Bushehr power plant, the fuel inside the reactor core will be taken out for a while to conduct some experiments and technical work," Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Iran's ISNA news agency.
The statement provided no further details and drew wide speculation about the nature of the problems at the plant.
The announcement was made on the same day that the IAEA released a report on Iran's nuclear program that said Tehran "is not cooperating with the agency regarding the outstanding issues which give rise to concern about possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program."
For example, the report said, Iran is still not providing information about locations of projects and equipment acquired.
The U.S. and its allies suspect that Iran is trying to develop atomic weapons; Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only.
Even Tehran's effort to generate power has alarmed some nuclear watchdog organizations because some scientists, citing the aging equipment at the plant, fear there is a risk of a Chernobyl-like accident at Bushehr.
"On one hand, it's encouraging that they pulled the plug," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the global security program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We have had concerns about the safety of this reactor and continue to urge the international community to examine its operations."
The Bushehr project could be delayed for weeks, months or even years depending on the nature of the problem, he said.
In 2010, the IAEA noted that the facility was understaffed.
"It's possible they may have taken shortcuts," which could lead to a variety of problems, Lyman said. He speculated that the rods may have been contaminated by metal particles from rusted pipes. Scientists have also posited that the reactor core could be cracked or otherwise damaged, which would require removal of the rods and extensive repairs.
Some have wondered whether the fuel rod problem is related to the Stuxnet malware program, a worm that penetrated some computers associated with uranium enrichment programs in Iran.
On Friday, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said the Obama administration was concerned by the IAEA report showing Iran was not complying with international obligations. The administration, he said, would continue pressing Tehran to meet those obligations.