August 21, 2010 in Nation/World

Iran to begin fueling reactor

Russian-built power plant is republic’s first
Jonathan S. Landay McClatchy
Associated Press photo

A security guard walks past a gate of the Bushehr nuclear power plant on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Iran is set to cross a new nuclear threshold, but it’s one the Obama administration isn’t worried about.

Today, technicians are scheduled to begin loading low-enriched uranium fuel supplied by Russia into Iran’s first civilian nuclear reactor. If all goes smoothly, the Bushehr plant could start producing electricity under United Nations monitoring late this year.

Bushehr embodies what the administration and many experts consider an ideal solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute: The Islamic republic benefits from the peaceful nuclear energy to which it’s entitled by international law, but the fuel comes from elsewhere, negating Iran’s need to make its own via enrichment, a process that also can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear bombs.

Moreover, under a 2007 accord negotiated by the Bush administration, the spent fuel rods will go back to Russia to prevent Iran from harvesting them for plutonium, the other essential component of nuclear weapons.

“Because the Bush administration did such a good job of neutralizing the Bushehr reactor, we don’t view it as a proliferation threat,” said a White House official.

Some experts, however, disagree. They warn that Iran could still use Bushehr to enhance its uranium enrichment program – located some 300 miles away at Natanz – that the U.N. Security Council is demanding be halted amid charges that it is part of a secret nuclear arms development project.

“I’m not arguing that it is obvious they will do this,” said Henry Sokolski, a former Pentagon official who served on the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. “But it increases the uncertainty budget. It doesn’t simplify things to have this reactor operating.”

At a minimum, the facility can serve as “an enormous cover” through which Iran can bring in weapons-related technology and experts prohibited by U.N. sanctions, said Sokolski, the director of the Proliferation Policy Education Center.

Critics of President Barack Obama have seized on the issue to launch fresh attacks on the administration’s reliance on tougher international sanctions to compel Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program and open negotiations.

John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in the Bush administration, went so far as to warn Israel on Tuesday that it had only days left to bomb Bushehr because doing so after the reactor is fueled would spread radioactive contamination across the region.

“One doesn’t have to take a John Bolton position or the official U.S. government position,” said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There are enough uncertainties … for us to look at the events that begin this weekend with some concern.”

The fuel-loading ceremony set for today has been decades in coming.

A German firm began building two 1,000-megawatt reactors in 1975, but withdrew without completing either in 1979. The site on Iran’s southern gulf coast was bombed several times during the 1980-’88 Iran-Iraq War, and in 1995, a Russian firm won a $1 billion deal to construct a single 915-megawatt reactor, which it completed in March 2009.

Russia dragged out the fueling process as it joined the U.S., the European Union and China in pressing Iran to suspend the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which Iran built with technology sold by a Pakistani-led smuggling ring and hid from U.N. inspectors for 18 years.

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