Thursday 22 March 2018

Iran fires up its first nuclear reactor

Katya Golubkova in TEHRAN

Iran began loading fuel into its first nuclear power plant yesterday, a potent symbol of its growing regional sway and its rejection of international sanctions designed to prevent it building nuclear weapons.

Television showed live pictures of Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi and his Russian counterpart watching a fuel rod assembly being prepared for insertion into the reactor near the gulf city of Bushehr.

"Despite all the pressures, sanctions and hardships imposed by Western nations, we are now witnessing the start-up of the largest symbol of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities," Mr Salehi said.

Russia designed and built the plant and will supply fuel. To ease nuclear proliferation concerns, it will take back spent rods that could be used to make weapons-grade plutonium.

Washington has criticised Moscow for pushing ahead with Bushehr despite Iranian defiance over its nuclear programme.

But US State Department spokesman Darby Holladay said Washington did not view the reactor as a proliferation risk, partly because of Russia's role in providing fuel and taking back spent rods.

Moscow supported a UN Security Council resolution in June that imposed a fourth round of sanctions because of fears, backed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that Iran's uranium enrichment programme is aimed at developing nuclear arms.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday told a meeting of university professors of plans to shoot satellites to altitudes of 700km, then 1,000km -- certain to add to Western concerns about Iran's development of missile technology.

"Once this target is realised, placing a satellite at a geosynchronous orbit of 35,000km will be easy," he was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency. "This will be done within the next two or three years."

Long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit can also be used to launch warheads.

Iran launched a domestically-made satellite in 2009, but only to an altitude of 250km. Washington called that a "provocative act".

Israel has said a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence, and was quick to criticise Tehran over Bushehr.

"It is totally unacceptable that a country that so blatantly violates (international treaties) should enjoy the fruits of using nuclear energy," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy said.

Israel's stance has raised concerns it could attack Iran's nuclear sites, but Mr Ahmadinejad said any raid would be suicidal.

"Even the most foolish politicians know that aggression against Iran would be suicidal. They know if anyone should want to attack Iran the confines of our reaction would not be limited to any specific area and that the entire world would be the battlefield," he said.

Iranian officials said it would take two to three months for Bushehr to start producing power, and that it would generate 1,000 megawatts, about 2.5 per cent of Iran's electricity usage.

The IAEA said it regularly inspected Bushehr. "The agency is taking the appropriate verification measures in line with its established safeguards procedures," spokesman Ayhan Evrensel said.

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