Oct 26 (Reuters) - Iran took a key step towards firing up its first nuclear power plant on Tuesday when it began loading fuel into the core of the Bushehr reactor on its Gulf coast.
Iran says the Russian-built facility will start producing electricity in early 2011 after many years of delay and that the West is wrong to accuse the Islamic Republic of seeking to develop weapons from nuclear technology.
For the United States and its allies, the fact that Bushehr will use fuel imported from Russia means that Iran does not need to enrich its own uranium, the part of Tehran’s nuclear activity they are most worried about, if its intentions are peaceful.
Major powers want Iran to accept an invitation from European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton for talks in Vienna next month to address their concerns about its programme.
The following looks at how the $1 billion reactor near the city of Bushehr fits into Iran’s disputed nuclear programme:
Analysts say Bushehr will not bring Iran any closer to developing an atom bomb. Russia’s role in supplying the fuel and operating the plant and inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog would prevent any diversion of material for military purposes.
Oliver Thraenert, senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said he did not believe the “reactor itself is a tool for Iran to develop nuclear weapons” but that other parts of its activities are.
Iran, which enriches uranium in a large underground complex at Natanz, says its nuclear programme is solely meant to yield electricity or isotopes for medicine and agriculture.
Washington earlier criticised Moscow for pushing ahead with Bushehr and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in March its planned start-up was “premature”.
But the criticism was not repeated after Russia in August announced it would load the fuel and the U.S. State Department said it did not regard the plant as a proliferation risk.
The launch of Bushehr may still rankle some in the United States and Israel — Iran’s arch-foes — which are deeply suspicious of Iran’s nuclear policy. Iran’s uranium enrichment element was hidden from U.N. inspectors until 2003.
John Bolton, the Bush-era U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been quoted as saying Bushehr would give Iran “a second route to nuclear weapons in addition to enriched uranium. It’s a very huge, huge victory for Iran.”
But other diplomats and experts played down any fears that the Bushehr plant may help Iran build nuclear weapons.
“There are some fairly rigorous...checks and balances built into the operation of the plant,” said Middle East analyst David Hartwell at IHS Jane’s, a global risk consultancy.
Uranium enriched to about 5 percent fissile purity is used as fuel for power plants. If refined to 80-90 percent purity, it provides the fissile core of nuclear weapons.
Iran’s refusal to halt such work despite four rounds of U.N. sanctions since 2006, as well as U.S. and European punitive steps, has compounded Western fears about its intentions.
Offering a different route to building a bomb, weapons-grade plutonium can be derived from spent fuel rods. But under its fuel contract with Moscow, Iran must return Bushehr’s fuel rods to Russia after they have been used and cooled down.
This has helped calm Western concern that the Bushehr plant could help Iran master the means to assemble a bomb. Russia shipped the nuclear fuel for Bushehr to Iran in 2007-08.
Moreover, the fuel will be under the scrutiny of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog, who should notice any diversion.
“In theory, there are legitimate concerns that ostensibly civilian reactors can be used for nuclear weapons,” said research associate Ivanka Barzashka of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. “In practice, using Bushehr for weapons will be very difficult.”
Mark Fitzpatrick, proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, said the launch of Bushehr should not be seen as an act of defiance by Iran.
“No country has suggested that Iran should not fuel the reactor and doing so is not in contravention of any resolution of the IAEA or (the U.N.) Security Council,” he said.
Iran has said it wants Bushehr to be the first in a network of nuclear power plants by 2030 that would slake rising energy demand at home and allow it to export more of its oil and gas.
Western experts say this aim is unrealistic, since Iran lacks experience in building nuclear reactors itself and it could face problems in buying them abroad due to prevailing United Nations sanctions.
“It of course depends on the sanctions and also on international assistance Iran receives or not receives... but 20 reactors, no, this is a pipe dream,” said Thraenerts.
Ian Hore-Lacy, public communications director of the World Nuclear Association industry body, said the Bushehr plant was a relatively big unit. “If it were in Europe, it would supply electricity to about 800,000 or 900,000 people.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich