September 2, 2011 / 9:07 PM / in 6 years

Iran's Bushehr plant suffers possible new glitch

* Iran’s first nuclear power plant repeatedly delayed

* Shutdown blamed on “small” turbine hall problem

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA, Sept 2 (Reuters) - Iran told U.N. inspectors last month it had temporarily shut down its Bushehr nuclear reactor for technical reasons, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report, in a possible new setback for the Russian-built power plant.

Bushehr has faced repeated delays, angering Tehran and fuelling speculation that Moscow has used it as a lever in diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear programme, which Western powers fear is a front for weapons development.

The 1,000-megawatt plant had been due to start producing electricity early this year, but those plans were thwarted by what Russia said in February was a pump problem requiring the removal of nuclear fuel that had just been loaded.

In May, the Russian company that built the $1 billion plant, Atomstroyexport, said Bushehr had begun operating at a low level in a crucial step towards bringing it online and connecting it to the Islamic state’s electricity grid.

But a confidential report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), obtained by Reuters on Friday, said it had visited the reactor site on Iran’s Gulf coast on Aug. 18.

Iran had then “explained that the reactor had been shut down for technical reasons and that it was planning to restart the reactor within the next few days”.

It gave no further detail, but a diplomat familiar with the issue said he believed Iran had blamed “one small problem in the turbine hall” for the shutdown at the country’s first atomic energy station.

Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, rejected any suggestion of a new setback to Bushehr’s start-up.

“I assume that there is no problem at all and things go in the right direction,” Soltanieh told Reuters.

Bushehr was begun by Germany’s Siemens in the 1970s, before Iran’s Islamic Revolution, but has been dogged by delays.

The United States and other Western nations for years urged Russia to abandon the Bushehr project, saying it could help Iran develop nuclear arms, but an agreement obliging Tehran to repatriate spent nuclear fuel to Russia eased those concerns.

Iran says it wants nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes and has rejected calls by six global powers including Russia to stop enriching uranium, activity which can have both civilian and military purposes.

In August, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Bushehr would be switched on soon. Also last month, members of an Iranian parliamentary committee set up to examine the status of Bushehr said costs had spiralled for the project.

Fuel was loaded into the reactor last October but some four months later had to be removed due to fears that metal particles from nearly 30-year old equipment used in the construction of the reactor core had contaminated the fuel.

Experts say that firing up the plant will not take Iran any closer to building a nuclear bomb since Russia will supply the enriched uranium for the reactor and take away spent fuel that could be used to make weapons-grade plutonium.

Countries concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities are more worried about its own enrichment of uranium, a process than can make nuclear fuel but also bomb material if done to a very high level.

Iran says it needs nuclear power to allow it to export more oil and gas and prepare for the day when mineral riches dry up. “The Bushehr power plant is continuing its test ... and electricity will be connected to the national grid,” Soltanieh said. (Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; editing by David Stamp) rn

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