TEHRAN: Iran will launch its first nuclear power plant next week, its atomic chief said on Friday after years of delays to the highly sensitive project built by Russia in the southern city of Bushehr.
"We are preparing to transfer the fuel inside the plant next week… Then we will need seven to eight days to transfer it to the reactor," said the Iranian atomic energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi.
"On August 21, the fuel will be transferred inside the building in which the engine" of the Bushehr power station is located, Iran’s Fars news agency quoted him as saying.
"On the whole, there are 165 fuel bars," he said, adding the reactor would start operating around mid-September.
Salehi’s comments came soon after Russian atomic agency Rosatom said the Bushehr plant would launch in a formal ceremony on August 21.
"The fuel will be charged in the reactor on August 21. From this moment, Bushehr will be considered a nuclear installation," Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov said.
"This can be considered as the physical launch," he said.
Russia has been building the plant since the mid-1990s but the project was marred by a series of delays, and the issue is hugely delicate amid the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Officials in Russia said the launch would be marked at a ceremony in Bushehr including the head of Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, his Iranian counterpart Salehi and possibly the Russian energy minister.
Relations between Moscow and Tehran have cooled over the past few months as Russia toughened its line on the Iranian nuclear drive, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this year confirmed the plant would start up in summer.
Western countries accuse oil-rich Iran of seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon under the guise of its civilian nuclear program.
But Tehran insists the drive is entirely peaceful and it needs nuclear energy for a rapidly expanding population whose fossil fuels will eventually run out.
Rosatom officials emphasized it would still take some time for the 1,000 MW capacity power plant to start significant work, with the facility working at a minimal power of 1 percent after 3-4 months.
Under the contract between Russia and Iran, Moscow has already sent the nuclear fuel for the plant with Iran committed to send spent fuel back to Russia for reprocessing.
Russia in late 2007 and early 2008 delivered to Iran a full consignment of 82 tons of nuclear fuel, which has been stored and sealed under UN nuclear agency safeguards ever since.
President Dmitry Medvedev declared earlier this month Iran was close to having the potential to build a nuclear weapon, the first time a Russian leader had warned so explicitly of the dangers of the nuclear drive.
But Russian officials have always pointed out Iran has a right to the use of peaceful nuclear energy.
The project to build the plant was first launched by the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in the 1970s using contractors from German firm Siemens. But it was shelved when he was deposed by the Islamic revolution in 1979.
But the project was revived after the death of revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 as new supreme leader Ali Khamenei and his first president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani emerged as supporters of the project.
In 1995, Iran found help from Russia which also agreed to fuel the plant as well as complete construction, with the supply deal committing Iran to returning any spent material.
The UN Security Council hit Tehran with a fourth set of sanctions on June 9 over its nuclear program, and the United States and European Union followed up with tougher punitive measures targeting Iran’s banking and energy sectors.