February 25, 2011 / 10:43 PM / in 7 years

Iran to unload fuel at Bushehr nuclear plant-IAEA

* Iran to unload fuel assemblies from reactor core - IAEA

* Bushehr nuclear power plant dogged by delays

* Russian official had warned of Chernobyl-like disaster

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Iran has announced it would have to unload fuel from its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor, a U.N. report said, a month after Russia warned a computer virus attack could have triggered a Chernobyl-style disaster there.

The confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) did not give any reason for Iran’s move, an unusual step just four months after it began loading fuel into the core of its first nuclear power plant.

Last week, state media quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as saying that 1,000 megawatt reactor on Iran’s Gulf coast was undergoing tests and that “everything is ready to produce electricity in the near future”.

But a senior Iranian atomic energy official said earlier this month the country should investigate claims that the Stuxnet computer worm, which security analysts suspect targeted Iran’s nuclear programme, had caused major harm to Bushehr.

Speaking after a Russian official warned of a “new Chernobyl”, the official, Mohammad Ahmadian, said reports of major damage to Bushehr were a malicious campaign by countries hostile to Tehran’s nuclear programme, but that they should be looked into in any case.

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

The IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear programme, obtained by Reuters on Friday, said the agency inspected Bushehr in mid-February and verified the nuclear material at the facility.

A few days later, “Iran informed the agency that it would have to unload fuel assemblies from the core, and the agency and Iran have agreed on the necessary safeguards measures.”

An official with knowledge of the issue said Iran “must have a good technical reason to do that”, and he expected it to take place in the next few days.

SAFETY ISSUES?

Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Reuters it was his understanding Russia had suggested the unloading of fuel assemblies, as it was responsible for completing Bushehr.

Soltanieh did not give details but stressed that safety issues had the highest priority.

Paul Brannan, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) think-tank, said it indicated a delay in the Bushehr project.

He said the move was in line with reports of safety and equipment issues at the plant, but he did not believe it was linked to Stuxnet.

Many analysts believe Stuxnet was a cyber attack by the United States and Israel aimed at disabling Iran’s nuclear equipment and slowing down a programme they suspect is aimed at making nuclear weapons, something Tehran denies.

Iranian officials have confirmed Stuxnet hit staff computers at Bushehr but said it did not affect major systems.

Russia’s NATO ambassador said in January the alliance should investigate the computer virus attack last year on Bushehr.

He said the incident could have triggered a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, referring to the 1986 nuclear accident at a plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.

Russia built and supplied the fuel for Bushehr, which has yet to start injecting power onto Iran’s national grid.

Experts say that firing up the $1-billion Bushehr 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. (Editing by Alison Williams)

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