Iran unloaded nuclear fuel from its first atomic power plant last month, a United Nations report said on Friday. A few months after the Russian builder said the long-postponed reactor was operating at full capacity.
The nuclear fuel unloaded by the Bushehr plant stands as a symbol of what the Islamic Republic see as its “peaceful” nuclear ambitions, despite disputes from Western nations. Any new hitch is possible to be seen as an embarrassment for both Tehran and Moscow, whose experts help run it.
Moving fuel assemblies from the reactor core to a spent fuel pond mean that the plant was shut down. “It was certainly not foreseen, that’s for sure,” reported a diplomat familiar with the issue.
Motives of the unexpected move are not clear but speculation points to a problem in running the Russian-built, 1,000-megawatt reactor near the Gulf city of Bushehr.
On 6 and 7 November, "the agency conducted an inspection of BNPP (Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant) and verified that the fuel assemblies were in the spent fuel pond", the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report on Iran's nuclear programme, giving no further detail on the matter.
In September 2011 Bushehr was plugged into Iran’s national grid, a move intended to end years of delays and perceptions that Moscow was using the project as a diplomatic lever to extract Iranian agreement on other issues.
As of August 2011 the Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom said it was fully operational.
Iran announced it had to remove fuel for testing earlier the previous year. Close sources claim this was due to concerns with metal particles from nearby 30-year-old equipment used in the construction of the reactor core had contaminated the fuel.
Iran's mission to the UN nuclear watchdog was not immediately available for comment. Russian builder NIAEP – part of Rosatom – was last month quoted as saying Bushehr would be formally "handed over for use" to Iran in March 2013, whereas earlier officials had said that would happen by the end of this year.
Last week, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, Iranian atomic energy chief, stated his country's experts would start operating the plant "after various experiments and tests" by mid-February. As a major oil producer, Iran says electricity generation is the main motive behind their nuclear work but its adversaries say Tehran's underlying goal is atomic weapons capability.
The Bushehr plant is not considered a major proliferation threat by nuclear inspectors, whose concern is focused on sites where Iran enriches nuclear fuel in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions demanding it stop.
Construction was underway by Germany’s Siemens before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which toppled the US-backed shah, and it was taken over by Russian engineers in the 1990s.
Fearing it could help Tehran develop nuclear weapons, the US spent years urging Russia to abandon the project. Such concerns later waned after an agreement under which Russia will supply enriched uranium for the reactor and repatriate spent fuel that could be reprocessed into weapons grade plutonium.
Russia sees Iran as a counterweight to US clout in the Middle East but is a partner of the US and four other powers – China, Britain, France and Germany – in efforts to rein in Tehran's nuclear activities.
Iran continued to rapidly expand its uranium enrichment capacity in an underground bunker built deep inside a mountain to protect it against enemy air strikes. This stands in defiance of international demands to curb the programme.
Enriched uranium can be used to fuel power plants – Iran's stated purpose – or to provide the explosive core of a nuclear bomb, which the West and Israel fear is Tehran's ultimate aim.