Russia Takes First Step In Start-Up Of Iran Nuke Plant

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Russia said Friday it will begin loading nuclear fuel rods into the reactor of Iran's first nuclear power plant next week.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Iran will soon have a nuclear power plant up and running. Russia says it will soon begin loading nuclear fuel rods into a reactor it's been building in Iran. It's been a controversial project fraught with delays. But Russia says this step will be irreversible. Reaction in Washington has been muted.

And NPR's Michele Kelemen explains why.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Bushehr project started in the 1970s by the German company Siemens, and was picked up by Russia in the mid-1990s. Iran often complained that the Russians delayed work on the plant to have some leverage over Iran, while the Russians have said there have been financial disputes.

Now Russia's state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, has set a date to load fuel rods into the Bushehr plant - August 21st. Spokesman Sergei Novikov told the English language television Russia Today that this is a major step.

Mr. SERGEI NOVIKOV (Spokesman, Rosatom): This event will symbolize that the period of testing is over, and the stage of physical start-up has begun.

KELEMEN: Novikov says this should be viewed as a signal to Iran that the international community supports peaceful nuclear energy for the country. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley took the news calmly, noting that Iran is still facing United Nations sanctions, and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog will be monitoring the power plant.

Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, State Department): Bushehr is designed to provide electricity to Iran. It is not viewed as a proliferation risk because Russia is providing the needed fuel and taking back the spent nuclear fuel, which is the principal source of potential proliferation.

KELEMEN: Crowley argues that the deal also undercuts Iran's argument that it needs to have its own enrichment capability.

Mr. CROWLEY: This is exactly the kind of model that we and others within the international community have offered to Iran over the years.

KELEMEN: The lack of outrage in Washington came as no surprise to one Iran watcher, Jim Walsh of MIT.

Dr. JIM WALSH (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Bushehr is really a symbol for how non-proliferation policy towards Iran has evolved these last 25 years. You know, you think back to Bill Clinton and George Bush - the elder, before him - Bushehr was the be-all and end-all of U.S. non-proliferation policy. And it was all about preventing this plant from being completed.

KELEMEN: But by the end of George W. Bush's term, he says, the focus shifted. U.S. officials started saying Iran is entitled to a civilian nuclear power plant, just not its uranium enrichment program.

Dr. WALSH: Lots of countries have power plants, but can't build the bomb. By contrast, enrichment and reprocessing technologies do provide you a direct route to nuclear weapons.

KELEMEN: The U.S. and other world powers, including Russia, have backed a series of sanctions meant to pressure Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program and return to talks. In a way, Walsh says, getting the Bushehr plant working - if, in fact, it happens this time - could help.

Dr. WALSH: We all know that the Iranians are going to go to the public and have a big ceremony and, you know, say, look how great an accomplishment this is. Well, if they do that, maybe that will give them some flexibility, the ability to be flexible on other issues that are actually more important, like enrichment.

KELEMEN: That, at least, is the hope of diplomats working on this issue. As for Bushehr, the MIT expert says he's less concerned about it from a non-proliferation standpoint but does have other worries. He says it remains to be seen whether you can build a plant over decades with experts from different countries, and do so safely. He says Iranians have told him they're crossing their fingers.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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