Russia will begin loading uranium-packed fuel rods into the Bushehr reactor in southwestern Iran on Aug. 21, Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov said Friday. The process will take two to three weeks and is considered a key step toward operationalization of the reactor that dates back to the 1970s.
"International society supports such peaceful projects such as Bushehr because everybody understands that you can't use nuclear power plant in your hypothetical military program," Novikov told television channel Russia Today. "It's true that there are two elements of double purpose -- enrichment and spent fuel management. But both elements are taken out of Iranian responsibility because we are going to supply with nuclear fuel Bushehr … for all its lifetime and then we will take the spent fuel back for processing in Russia."
Russia insists that the procedure of firing up Bushehr will be carried out under the auspice of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. A team of IAEA safety experts in February and March reviewed Iran's safety regulations with regard to Bushehr, in a mission that included a visit to the reactor. Russia's Atomstroyexport, which has completed the long delayed plant, tested the reactor in July. When the sealed Russian fuel will be opened on Aug. 21, IAEA officers will be present, Novikov said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Moscow in March warned against starting up Bushehr because of allegations that Iran runs a secret nuclear weapons program.
The European Union last month imposed sanctions against Iran in a bid to increase pressure on Tehran to halt its controversial uranium enrichment program and return to the negotiation table. The measures target the Iranian financial and trade sectors as well as the energy industry and came on top of a fourth round of sanctions imposed by the United Nations in June.
Iran denies Western allegations that its nuclear program is aimed at building nuclear weapons, vowing instead that it is for civil and energy purposes only. So far, Western sanctions have failed to pressure Iran into halting nuclear enrichment and cooperating with the West. Tehran argues it has the right to pursue nuclear energy independent from international oversight.
At Bushehr, this Iranian dream could soon come true. The sanctions don't affect Bushehr because the reactor does not contain sensitive technology and is run under Russian supervision.
"The Iranians have been able to go ahead with Bushehr because it's clean," an unnamed nuclear expert told British newspaper The Guardian.
Bushehr's construction was begun in 1975 by a joint venture of the German companies Siemens and AEG Telefunken, but halted after the1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent U.S. Embassy siege in Tehran.
In the 1990s, Russia signed an agreement with Iran to complete the power plant. Its launch ceremony scheduled for Aug. 21 will be attended by Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko and Iranian Vice President, Ali Akbar Salehi, who also heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.