Iran has begun loading fuel into the core of its nuclear reactor in the southern port of Bushehr, moving the Russian-built plant closer to starting up after decades of delays.
The state-run IRNA news agency reports the announcement on the fuelling was made by the head of the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi.
The 1,000-megawatt plant, the origins of which date back to the 1970s, should finally start producing energy in early 2011.
Delays have persisted to the very end of the project. The plant was formally opened in August and the 163 fuel rods were moved into the building, but the work of actually loading the reactor core was delayed by what the authorities now describe as a leak in a storage pool.
At the time, reports were circulating that gave another reason for the delay. It was that some computers at the plant were hit by a mysterious virus.
Russia is supplying the enriched uranium rods for the reactor and taking away the spent fuel, and in addition, the plant is under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
These arrangements have largely quieted international concerns that the Bushehr reactor could be tied into Iran's separate program to enrich its own uranium.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to reports, saying the United States has no problem with Iran's Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor plant.
She said that the problem "is with their facilities at places like Natanz and their secret facility at Qom and other places where we believe they are conducting their weapons program."
The international community, led by the United States, fears Iran could be using its opaque enrichment program to develop nuclear weapons. The Iranian government denies any intention to make a nuclear bomb.
The plant at Bushehr was originally begun by German companies in 1975, but German participation ended with Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Russia's involvement in the project began in 1995, when Moscow signed an $800 million contract with the Iranians to finish the plant by 1999 -- meaning that the plant's completion is running 11 years late.
AP notes that Iranian officials have sporadically criticized Russia for the numerous delays, some calling Moscow an "unreliable partner" and others accusing Russia of using the reactor as a lever in nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
Certainly the international pressure on Tehran over its enrichment process is unrelenting. The United Nations Security Council has imposed four sets of sanctions on Iran because of its refusal to suspend the program.
But Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast used the occasion of the Bushehr loading to emphasize that Iran will not give up what it declares is a peaceful nuclear program.
"This kind of pressure will not have any impact on the will of our nation to pursue its rights," Mehmanparast said. "We have demonstrated in the past 32 years that for the progress of our country and for accessing our rights, we do not surrender to this kind of unjust, unfair, and illogical pressure on the way and we advise if Western countries want to move toward a world where people live under better conditions, they have to stop their unfair and discriminatory actions."
The "P5+1" powers -- Russia, the United States, China, France, and Britain plus Germany -- have invited Iran for nuclear talks in Vienna from November 15 to 17. Regular talks broke off last year.
written by Breffni O'Rourke based on agency reports