TEHRAN, Iran – Technicians have finished loading fuel into Iran's first nuclear power reactor and aim to start up the facility by late January, the country's nuclear chief said Saturday.
The startup of the Bushehr power plant, a project completed with Russian help but beset by years of delays, will deliver Iran the central stated goal of its atomic work — the generation of nuclear power.
The United States and some of its allies, however, believe the Bushehr plant is part of a civil energy program that Iran is using as cover for a secret aim to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Iran denies the accusation.
Nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said it will take another month or two before the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor at Bushehr begins pumping electricity to Iranian cities, and he again denied that a mysterious and destructive computer worm known as Stuxnet has set back Iran's nuclear work.
"We sealed the lid of the reactor without any propaganda and fuss," Salehi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency. "All fuel assemblies have been loaded into the core of the reactor."
The Bushehr plant itself is not among the West's concerns because safeguards are in place to ensure that the spent fuel will be returned to Russia and cannot be diverted to weapons making.
Other facilities on Iran's nuclear map are of much deeper international concern, namely the underground uranium enrichment facility in the central city of Natanz. Iran says it only wants to enrich uranium to the safe, lower levels needed for making fuel for power stations like Bushehr.
But the technology offers Iran a potential pathway to weapons production, should it chose to enrich uranium to higher, weapons-grade levels.
The United Nations Security Council has imposed four sets of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend enrichment.
In the case of Bushehr, the fuel has been provided by Russia, a fact that the international community has seized upon to argue that Iran does not need to produce its own fuel at home. Getting the fuel from abroad would help ensure the material is more closely monitored to prevent it from being further processed into weapons-grade material.
Iran, however, says it has the right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to run its own enrichment program.
Iran began moving the Russian-supplied fuel rods into the Bushehr reactor building in August and started loading the fuel into the core of the reactor in late October. With that process now complete, Salehi said all that remains to be done is to wait for the water inside the reactor's core to gradually reach a desired temperature, after which a series of tests need to be carried out.
"We hope the Bushehr power plant will be connected to the country's national power grid within the next one or two months," said Salehi, who is also the country's vice president.
The fueling process was delayed by weeks because of what Iran described last month as a "small leak" in a storage pool where the plant's fuel was being held.
Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said last month that the Stuxnet computer worm, which Iranian officials have said is part of a foreign plot to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, was not to blame for the delays at Bushehr even though the virus was found on several laptops belonging to plant employees.
It is not clear who created the malicious computer code, which is thought to be aimed at Iran's nuclear program. The suspicions of some analysts have centered on Israel.
Diplomats told The Associated Press in Vienna last week that major technical problems forced the temporary shutdown of thousands of centrifuge machines used in Iran's uranium enrichment work. They did not say what caused the problems, but experts have identified Stuxnet as being calibrated to destroy centrifuges by sending them spinning out of control.
The Bushehr project dates back to 1974, when Iran's U.S.-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi contracted with the German company Siemens to build the reactor. The company withdrew from the project after the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the shah and brought hard-line clerics to power.
In 1992, Iran signed a $1 billion deal with Russia to complete the project and work began in 1995.
Under the contract, Bushehr was originally scheduled to come on stream in July 1999 but the startup has been delayed repeatedly by construction and supply glitches.
Moscow has cited technical reasons for the delays, but Iranian officials have sporadically criticized Russia, some calling Moscow an "unreliable partner."
The Bushehr plant overlooks the Persian Gulf and is visible from several miles away with its cream-colored dome dominating the green landscape.
Soldiers maintain a 24-hour watch on roads leading up to the plant, manning anti-aircraft guns and supported by numerous radar stations.