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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Iranian, Russian Technicians Test Bushehr Nuclear Plant

By Edward Yeranian
25 February 2009

Iranian and Russian officials began a test run of Iran's first nuclear plant on Wednesday, after repeated delays in making the plant operational. An Iranian official says the test run was done with computers and uranium was not used.

The pilot operations at the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor, built with Russian assistance under a $1 billion contract, have long been delayed, amid the ongoing controversy in the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Journalists observe test

Foreign and Iranian journalists were allowed to film the Bushehr plant, as its reactor was switched on, then loaded with non-nuclear fuel rods made of lead. Enriched uranium is needed to operate the plant normally.

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh conducted the inaugural test run along with the head of Russia's nuclear energy agency Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko. Aghazadeh, speaking here through a translator, described the development to Iran's Press TV.

"I hope that the pre-commissioning of this power plant will pave the way for increasing its capacity to 1000 megawatts. Iran and Russia have been working in close cooperation, particularly over the past few months to complete the nuclear plant and the project has been proceeding at a fast pace," he said. "Hopefully, the power plant will soon generate electricity."

IAEA inspectors will keep an eye on activities

Russia built the Bushehr plant under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, whose inspectors will also keep tabs on its activities, as well as its Russian fuel suppliers, 24 hours a day. Western officials are concerned that Iran could use its nuclear program to make fuel for a nuclear weapon, a charge Iran denies.

Iranian nuclear expert Mohsen Shirazi told Iranian TV that the usage of lead-based fuel rods in Wednesday's test run "will enable us to simulate the first cycle's hydraulic conditions for hot and cold tests."

Reports also say that Iranian nuclear scientists will also schedule a date to insert uranium fuel rods, if Wednesday's test is deemed a success.

The plant, which will run on enriched uranium imported from Russia, has worried the West because the spent fuel could later be turned into plutonium, potential material for nuclear warheads. But concerns over the reactor softened somewhat after Iran agreed to return spent fuel to Russia to ensure Tehran does not reprocess it into plutonium. Russia's fuel deliveries to Iran began in 2007.

Analyst: test is not a milestone

Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, says Wednesday's test is no great milestone in Iran's possible road to nuclear proliferation.

"I wouldn't use words like threshold with respect to Bushehr, because even if they have managed to fire it up properly and even if in the next couple of months they have Bushehr operating at its appropriate capacity and producing electricity, it is relatively fool-proof when it comes to proliferation, when compared to other activities within Iran because the fuel rods are being supplied by Russia," said Ingram. "It is not possible for Iranians to supply their own fuel to Bushehr and the fuel rods will come out at the end of the process irradiated and will be picked up by Russia for reprocessing within Russia."

Natanz plant poses bigger threat

Ingram notes that the real danger of Iranian nuclear proliferation comes from its Natanz nuclear enrichment plant, which produces low-grade enriched uranium.

"There is certainly concern that the Iranians are building up their stocks of low enriched uranium. The larger the stock of low enriched uranium and the more centrifuges they have operating at Natanz, the closer they are to a possible breakout capability," he said. "Again, it's a matter of several months, and they will have to throw out the [International Atomic Energy] agency inspectors and do some pretty transparent things, transparent in terms of going for a nuclear weapons capability, if they were to abuse their positions. But, there certainly is concern."

Iran is presently in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. The council has passed three sets of sanctions against Iran over uranium enrichment and is considering further measures. Tehran, for its part, claims that it is exercising its right to civilian nuclear energy, as permitted by the Nuclear Non-Proliferations Treaty, NPT.

The Security Council wants Iran to suspend enrichment and other nuclear activities in order to determine that they are intended for civilian purposes.

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