Iran tests first nuclear plant
Iran was testing its long-delayed first nuclear power plant on Wednesday as it pressed ahead with its controversial atomic drive despite international sanctions.
The head of the Russian nuclear agency Sergei Kiriyenko, who is visiting Iran for the so-called pre-commissioning phase, said construction of the Russian-built plant at the Gulf port of Bushehr was now complete.
"The construction stage of the nuclear power plant is over, we are now in the pre-comissioning stage, which is a combination of complex procedures," Sergei Kiriyenko told reporters.
Iran is carrying out comprehensive tests of various equipment at the 1,000-megawatt plant which officials said involve "virtual fuel," not nuclear fuel rods.
Iran and Russia are also set to announce a date for the plant to go operational during the pre-commissioning ceremony, the official IRNA news agency had reported on Tuesday.
Tehran's ambitious nuclear drive has triggered a row with Western governments which suspect it is seeking to covertly build atomic weapons, a charge Iran strongly denies.
Russia took over construction at Bushehr in 1995 but completion of the plant was delayed for a number of reasons, in particular the nuclear standoff between and Iran and the international community.
Iran insists its nuclear drive is for peaceful purposes only and has rejected repeated UN Security Council calls for a halt to uranium enrichment, despite a three sets of sanctions being imposed for its defiance.
Enrichment is the process that makes nuclear fuel for power plants but can also be diverted to make the fissile core of an atomic bomb.
The start-up of the plant will be a leap forward in Iran's efforts to develop nuclear technology but is likely to further unnerve Western powers, which were rattled by the launch this month of an Iranian satellite into space on a home-built rocket.
Kiriyenko said on February 5 that the actual "technical launch" of the Bushehr plant was possible before the end of 2009 if there were no delays caused by "unforeseen circumstances."
The project was first launched by the US-backed shah of Iran in the 1970s using contractors from German company Siemens but was shelved after the Islamic revolution until Russia became involved.
The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said last week it had been informed by Tehran that the loading of fuel into the reactor was scheduled to take place during the second quarter of 2009.
The fuel, supplied by Moscow, is currently under IAEA seal.
All the main equipment at Bushehr -- which has been installed by Russian contractor Atomstroiexport.
"Virtual fuel which does not have uranium will be loaded in the core of the reactor," the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Mohammad Saeedi, told state television.
"The main units, especially the primary circuit, back-up systems and sub-units are tested to remove any failure that could happen in the commissioning stage," he said.
The IAEA, which has been investigating Iran's nuclear activities for six years, said in a report issued last Thursday that Tehran is continuing to enrich uranium, but has slowed down the expansion of its enrichment activities.
In all, IAEA inspectors had been able to verify that Iran has accumulated 839 kilogrammes (1,846 pounds) of low-enriched uranium. And Iran had told the IAEA that it had added another 171 kilogrammes this month.
Estimates vary, but analysts calculate that anywhere between 1,000-1,700 kilogrammes would be needed to convert into high-enriched uranium suitable for one bomb.