TEHRAN, Iran – Iran said Sunday it is seeking bids to build two more nuclear power plants even as the launch of its first plant is stalled amid a bitter dispute with Russia over its funding.
Ahmad Fayyazbakhsh, the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization in charge of power plants, told reporters the plants would be light-water reactors, each with the capacity to generate up to 1,600 megawatts of electricity.
Each plant would cost up to $1.7 billion and take up to 11 years to construct, he said.
The announcement comes as Iran has been struggling with Russia over the funding of the country's first plant near the southern city of Bushehr.
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Russia delayed the launch of the plant, which had been set for September and is already eight years behind schedule, and refused to ship uranium fuel for the reactor last month as earlier planned, citing Iran's payment arrears.
Iranian officials denied any payment delays under the $1 billion contract, and accused Russia of caving in to Western pressure.
Due to have opened first in 1999, the Bushehr light-water reactor stands 95 percent complete, Iranian officials say. The facility, with its cream-colored reactor dome, overlooks the Persian Gulf and is heavily guarded, ringed with anti-aircraft guns and radar stations. Troops block roads leading to the site.
Construction began in 1974 with help from then-West Germany. Work was then interrupted during the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and brought hard-line clerics to power. Iraq also bombed the plant during its 1980-88 war with Iran.
When Iran tried to resume the project after the war, the Germans refused to help. Iran turned to Russia, signing a $1 billion contract to build the 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant in 1995.
Iran has also been focusing on developing its own domestic technology, building a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor in Arak, central Iran. It is also preparing to build a 360-megawatt nuclear power plant in Darkhovin, in southwestern Iran.
Fayyazbakhsh said the two new plants would be built near Bushehr, and he planned to travel to Russia next week to try to ease tensions and get the first Bushehr plant back on track.
The bids for the two plants, which will expire in early August, have been published on the nuclear organization's Web site. Iran has already negotiated with several foreign companies that have expressed interest in the new project, Fayyazbakhsh said. He declined to name the companies.
Under Iranian law, the nuclear organization has been tasked with providing 20,000 megawatts of electricity through nuclear power plants during the next 20 years.
The U.S. and some of its allies accuse Iran of secretly developing nuclear weapons — a charge Iran denies.
Iran has insisted it has a right to develop enrichment and has pushed ahead with the process at a separate facility outside the central town of Natanz.
The U.N. Security Council last month voted to impose new sanctions on Iran as part of a second set of penalties in three months against Tehran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
The enrichment process can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or — if taken to a higher degree — the material for atomic bombs.
Unlike Natanz, the Bushehr plant is not part of the dispute with the U.N. Security Council because the reactor itself has no potential military use.
Iran said Monday it has begun operating 3,000 centrifuges at its Natanz facility— nearly 10 times the previously known number — in defiance of the U.N. demands. The U.S., Britain, France and others criticized the announcement.
But the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, has discounted Tehran's claims, saying only several hundred centrifuges were operating at Natanz.
ElBaradei on Sunday urged Iran to be "transparent" in its nuclear program and other countries not to resort to military action over Tehran's nuclear standoff.
"We hope that Iran will cooperate with us, using enough transparency, so that we can assert that its nuclear program is dedicated for peaceful purposes," ElBaradei said during a stop in Jordan.
The U.N.'s latest sanctions included the banning of Iranian arms exports and freezing of assets of 28 people and organizations involved in Iran's nuclear missile programs.
Iran has rejected the sanctions and announced a partial suspension of cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Association.
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