Reuters: Iran said on Wednesday it had carried out successful tests at its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in a step towards its launch.
By Hossein Jaseb
BUSHEHR, Iran, Feb 25 (Reuters) – Iran said on Wednesday it had carried out successful tests at its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in a step towards its launch.
The visiting head of Russia's state nuclear company, Sergei Kiriyenko, hailed "significant improvements" in the construction of the Islamic state's first such plant to produce electricity.
The West, which suspects Tehran's nuclear programme is a cover for a drive to build bombs, has been critical of Russia's involvement in building Bushehr. Russia says it is purely civilian and cannot be used for any weapons programme.
Iranian officials said they had carried out tests to inject "virtual" fuel into rods, using lead instead of enriched uranium, over the past 10 days.
"We're celebrating Bushehr's pre-commissioning which means we are getting closer to the launch of the plant," Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, told reporters at the site in the country's southwest.
"This virtual fuel testing was successful," he said.
Kiriyenko said on Feb. 5 that Russia aimed to start up Bushehr's nuclear reactor, located on Iran's Gulf coast, by the end of the year.
The launch of Bushehr has been delayed frequently. Russia last year completed delivery of nuclear fuel to the station under a contract estimated to be worth about $1 billion.
"In the recent months there have been significant improvements. I'm very satisfied with what I saw," Kiriyenko told reporters at the site on Wednesday.
"This is a very serious and important phase … we should continue this trend of work," he said.
A Bushehr official, Mohsen Shirazi, earlier said that if the tests were successful fuel rods with enriched uranium would be used instead of lead, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Enriched uranium can be used as fuel for power plants and also provide material for bombs if refined much further.
Analysts say Iran could become a central issue in relations between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and new U.S. President Barack Obama, who has said that the United States is prepared to talk to Tehran in a break from his predecessor's approach.
They say Russia has used Bushehr as a lever in relations with Tehran, which is suspected by the United States and some European countries of seeking to build nuclear weapons.
Iran, the world's fourth-largest crude producer, rejects such allegations and says its nuclear programme is aimed at generating electricity so that it can export more oil and gas.
Russia started deliveries of nuclear fuel for the plant in late 2007, a step both Washington and Moscow said removed any need for Iran to have its own uranium enrichment programme.
Moscow says Iran will return all spent fuel rods to Russia.
The U.N. nuclear agency watchdog said on Thursday Iran had slowed the expansion of its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz but that it had built up a stockpile of nuclear fuel. (Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Giles Elgood)