West jittery as Iran completes its first nuclear reactor

Russia puts finishing touch to plant as experts warn of threat from uranium enrichment programme

Iran's ambitions to become a nuclear superpower edged closer to realisation yesterday, with the opening of the country's first energy-producing nuclear reactor.

The long-awaited project, dogged by opposition from the US since plans were first drawn up in the 1970s, is now complete.

Iranian and Russian engineers will spend the next two weeks loading fuel into the plant, near the city of Bushehr. More than 160 fuel assemblies – equal to 80 tons of uranium fuel – will be moved into the reactor core over the next fortnight. It will be another two months before the Russian-built 1,000-megawatt light water reactor starts generating electricity. Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said yesterday: "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."

He added: "Today is a historic day."

Russia, which helped to finish building Bushehr, has pledged to prevent spent nuclear fuel at the site from being shifted to a possible weapons programme. After years of delaying its completion, Moscow says it believes the Bushehr project is essential for persuading Iran to co-operate with international efforts to ensure it does not develop nuclear weapons. But John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, has expressed grave concerns about the move. "Iran is on the verge of achieving something that Saddam Hussein was not able to achieve, and that's getting a second route to nuclear weapons," he said last week. "It's a very, very significant step forward for the Iranian nuclear programme."

Mark Hibbs, a nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has warned that Bushehr will be the only power reactor in the world operating without its national government belonging to the International Atomic Energy Agency's Convention on Nuclear Safety. "Without Iran's participation in this convention, the outside world has no credible assurances that it is operating Bushehr in a manner reflecting internationally acceptable safety standards," he said.

However, any concerns over the Bushehr plant are overshadowed by continuing fears over Iran's controversial uranium enrichment programme – which could allow it to develop weapons-grade plutonium. The US is leading calls for Iran to cease its efforts to develop uranium enrichment, a matter that has been the subject of a number of UN Security Council sanctions.

The new power station is not considered a proliferation risk because the terms of the deal commit Iran to allowing Russia to retrieve all used reactor fuel for reprocessing. Spent fuel contains plutonium, which can be used to make atomic weapons.

Fears of spent fuel from the plant being used for military means were dismissed last night by the British expert Norman Dombey, the professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Sussex University: "The concern over Bushehr is a red herring and always has been. I remember when the US State Department was arguing against Bushehr, saying that Iran shouldn't have a light water reactor, at the same time as it was agreeing to furnish North Korea with light water reactors."

He added: "Bushehr poses no risk of proliferation. The reason is that the plutonium from a light water reactor is going to be contaminated with plutonium 240 and so it is not weapons-grade plutonium. No state has exploded plutonium originating from an electricity-generating light water reactor."

In an attempt to calm Israeli fears over Iran's nuclear capability, US officials claim that Iran is still some way off being able to develop a nuclear weapon. Gary Samore, President Barack Obama's top adviser on nuclear issues, said last week that it would take Tehran "roughly a year" to turn low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade material.

Nuclear experts are most concerned about Iran's stated plans, in defiance of existing UN sanctions, to build 10 new uranium enrichment sites inside protected mountain strongholds.

Iran's main existing uranium-enrichment facility is in an underground facility at Natanz, about 160 miles south-east of Tehran, surrounded by anti-aircraft batteries. And last year Western intelligence discovered another uranium enrichment facility being built inside former ammunition depots carved into a mountainside near the holy city of Qom.

In relation to this, Professor Dombey said: "While Iran's plans for Bushehr don't pose a proliferation problem, its enrichment plans do."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power