Russia's Plan to Launch Iran's Nuclear Plant Reaches Final Stage

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The Russian state-run company building Iran's first nuclear plant said Monday that preparations for the reactor's launch had entered their final stage.

Atomstroiexport chief Leonid Reznikov said that by year's end the company will take steps that will make the launch of the Bushehr plant "irreversible."

Company spokeswoman Irina Yesipova said the launch date will be determined after talks between Russian and Iranian nuclear officials this month.

Iranian officials have said that Bushehr would be launched this fall.

The International Atomic Energy Agency declined comment.

Nonproliferation expert David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security tracks countries under nuclear suspicion, suggested that the steps referred to by Russia probably involved the loading of fuel into the reactor.

He said there are no irreversible steps, but taking out after it was loaded would be troublesome because it would require dealing with irradiated fuel and a contaminated reactor core.

Iran is paying Russia more than $1 billion to build the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor. Construction has been held up by disputes between Tehran and Moscow, publicly described as centering on questions of payment and the schedule for shipping nuclear fuel.

A U.S. counterproliferation official said it was not at all clear that Bushehr would be operational as soon as the Russian statements suggested. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the conclusion was preliminary and the Bush administration has not released a broad assessment of progress at the site.

The United States and other Western nations that fear Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons have criticized Russia for building Bushehr.

Washington softened its position after Iran agreed to return spent nuclear fuel to Russia to ensure it does not extract materials that could be used to make weapons. The United States and its Western allies also agreed to drop any reference to Bushehr in sanctions resolutions passed by the U.N. Security Council.

Russia says the plant's contract is in line with all international agreements aimed at preventing nuclear weapons proliferation.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack did not comment directly on the Russian statements but pointed out that the deal between Russia and Iran on Bushehr has long been in place.

"In a sense, it is a kind of model for Iran being able to have civilian nuclear energy without the fuel cycle," he said. "Quite frankly, the international system has at this point decided they can't be trusted."