WASHINGTON – Fuel that would power Iran’s first nuclear energy facility is being removed from the reactor this weekend because of unspecified safety concerns, Iranian officials have disclosed, a setback for the country’s controversial nuclear program.
A short statement late Friday from Iran’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency said fuel rods were being withdrawn from the Bushehr power plant, which has been under construction since the mid-1970s and is a symbol of pride for the Iranian regime.
“Based on the recommendation of Russia, which is in charge of completing the Bushehr power plant, the fuel inside the reactor core will be taken out for a while to conduct some experiments and technical work,” Iran’s envoy to the atomic agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Iran’s ISNA news agency.
The statement provided no further details and drew wide speculation about the nature of the problem.
The announcement was made on the same day that the IAEA released a report on Iran’s nuclear program that said Iran “is not cooperating with the agency regarding the outstanding issues which give rise to concern about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”
For example, the report said, Iran is still not providing information about locations of projects and equipment acquired.
The U.S. and its allies suspect that Iran is developing atomic weapons; Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only.
Even the relatively benign effort to generate power has alarmed some nuclear watchdog organizations because some scientists cite the aging equipment at the plant and openly talk of the risk of another accident, like the one that devastated the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant in then-Soviet Ukraine.
“On one hand, it’s encouraging that they pulled the plug,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We have had concerns about the safety of this reactor and continue to urge the international community to examine its operations.”
The Bushehr project could be delayed for weeks, months or even years depending on the nature of the problem, he said.
In 2010, the IAEA noted that the facility was understaffed.
“It’s possible they may have taken shortcuts,” Lyman said, which could lead to any number of problems.
Some have wondered whether the fuel rod problem is related to the Stuxnet computer malware program, a so-called worm that penetrated some computers associated with uranium enrichment programs in Iran.