Russia to begin activating Iran’s first nuclear power plant

Russia announced Friday that it will soon begin loading fuel into Iran’s first nuclear power plant, the initial step toward bringing the long-delayed project on line at a time when the U.S. is attempting to weaken Tehran’s atomic program with new international sanctions.

Russia’s state atomic agency, which is overseeing the plant near Bushehr, said low-enriched uranium would be added Aug. 21 but that the power station may not be fully active for months. Work on the facility began in the 1970s, when Iran staked much of its national pride on the development of nuclear energy.

“The event will symbolize that the period of testing is over and the stage of physical start-up has begun,” according to a statement released by the Russian atomic agency.

The $1-billion contract between Russia and Iran is designed to prevent Tehran from enriching uranium to weapons-grade strength. Russia has provided the 1,000-megawatt plant with low-enriched uranium, which has been sealed and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran is also required to return fuel and plutonium generated at Bushehr to Russia for reprocessing.

Ali Akbar Salehi, chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, was quoted by IRNA news service as saying: “God willing, we will prepare ourselves to transfer the fuel of the nuclear plant from outside of the plant to the heart of the plant inside the premises next week.”

Although the Bushehr project is not connected to Iran’s secret enrichment program, which Western powers suspect is designed to make nuclear weapons, Washington has been frustrated that Russian plans to activate the plant send mixed signals to Iran.

The Obama administration pushed for a new round of United Nations economic sanctions in June in another effort to force Tehran to make its atomic program more transparent. The U.S. and European Union followed that move with tougher sets of unilateral sanctions.

A senior administration official who requested anonymity played down U.S. concerns about the Russian action, while acknowledging that American officials have raised objections to the arrangement for more than a decade.

He noted that the plant would be monitored by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency and that the facility’s purpose was to provide electricity.

“We do not view it as a proliferation risk,” he said, adding that Tehran’s willingness to receive nuclear fuel from Russia “undercuts Iran’s rationale for having its own, indigenous enrichment capability.”

Iran says its nuclear ambitions center on generating civilian energy and producing medical isotopes. Salehi said U.N. inspectors would be invited to watch the unsealing of the fuel and that an inauguration ceremony would be held at Bushehr in coming weeks.

After nuclear fuel is transferred to the reactor, the next step involves loading the fuel into the core, followed by the triggering of a nuclear reaction by moving fuel rods closer to one another.

The project was begun by the German firm Siemens in the 1970s under the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The plant on the Persian Gulf coast fell into disarray after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and was restarted in the mid-1990s when Russia took over.

Bushehr was supposed to begin producing electricity in 2006, but there were construction delays and suggestions that Russia was impeding progress as a diplomatic tool to rein in Iran’s nuclear program in order to placate Washington and gain favor with the West.

Paul Richter in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.