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Iran's Nuclear Chief: Bushehr Plant Will Go Online by Month's End

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The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, indicated Friday that Iran's controversial nuclear power plant at Bushehr will go online seven to eight days after Russia delivers its nuclear fuel supply on August 21.  Russia indicated that it would start loading fresh nuclear fuel into the reactor on that date.

Iranian state media on Friday trumpeted the imminent start-up of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in what appears to be a display of national pride.  Past announcements that the plant would come online had been met with repeated deceptions.

Atomic Energy Chief Ali Akbar Salehi told journalists that the plant would be launched next week, when nuclear fuel is "transferred inside the Bushehr plant."  He added that it would then require "seven or eight days to place [the fuel] inside the reactor."

He says that from our perspective as you introduce the fuel into the reactor, that reactor becomes operational.  However, a conventional power plant is different from a nuclear power plant, because the nuclear plant takes more time to be up and running.

The spokesman for Russia's atomic energy agency, Rosatom, Sergei Novikov, discussed the matter earlier Friday.

He says that the process of loading fresh nuclear fuel into the reactor building would begin on August 21, at which point it would be inside the pre-reactor storage facility.  He emphasizes that the nuclear reactor will then officially be classified as a nuclear energy installation.  The testing phase, he adds, will then be complete and the physical launch will begin.

Novikov went on to say that the entire process would take place "under the supervision of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors."

Iranian nuclear chief Salehi noted that the "fuel is sealed," adding that "IAEA inspectors must be present to remove [those] seals."

Iran's Mehr News Agency reported that a second and final injection of nuclear fuel would take place on September 5.  At that point, according to Salehi, the plant would reach "50 percent of its electrical generating capacity."  He added that six or seven additional months would be needed for the plant to be fully operational.

German firms first began work on the Bushehr plant in 1974, which came to a stop after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.  Russia took over the stalled project in 1994, progressing slowly.

Political and commercial ties between Russia and Iran have soured in recent months amid mutual recriminations.  Russia voted in June, along with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, to impose fresh sanctions on Tehran for refusing to stop enriching uranium.

Tehran insists that its controversial nuclear program is intended entirely for civilian purposes, pointing specifically to the Bushehr plant.  Western states suspect that Iran's civilian program is masking covert activity to build nuclear weapons.

Iranian-born analyst Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington thinks the Bushehr plant start-up is more of a symbolic victory than a technical achievement.

"One thing that we have to bear in mind when we are talking about the Bushehr plant: It isn't so much the value that the Bushehr plant has in terms of the overall nuclear program that Iran has going on," said Alex Vatanka. "It's just one aspect of a much broader nuclear sector that they are setting up.  But from a diplomatic point of view, particularly in this day and age where Iran is feeling the pressure on the sanctions front.  What they can do, which might be enough for them, in terms of take it and run with it, what they can do is to use this and say, 'gotcha.'  All the talk about putting pressure on us, containing us, limiting our ties to the world, well, they're not working."

Vatanka argues the opening of the Bushehr plant will also be a major victory for the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose opponents have criticized the amount of money that Iran has spent on the Bushehr plant with little to show for it.

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