With some fanfare, Iran has announced the start of tests on its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant -- and that the facility could be operational before the end of the year.
Iranian officials invited international correspondents to cover a visit on February 25 to the 1,000-megawatt reactor by Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's state nuclear company, Rosatom, and his Iranian counterpart Gholamreza Aqazadeh.
Kiriyenko told reporters that construction of the long-delayed Bushehr plant -- Iran's first nuclear power station -- is now complete. He said the Bushehr project is now undergoing a combination of complex procedures that he described as "the precommissioning stage."
"This is an important stage," Kiriyenko said. "In fact, we are beginning a series of operations connected with the launch of the station. One of the elements will take place tomorrow, which is the loading of imitation fuel into the reactor in order to check the efficiency of all systems."
Iranian official Mohsen Shirazi said the fuel-rod imitators were created by injecting "virtual" fuel -- lead without any enriched uranium material -- into Bushehr's fuel rods.
If the tests are successful, Shirazi said it will clear the way for the use of nuclear fuel rods containing enriched uranium that was supplied last year by Russia under a contract estimated to be worth about $1 billion.International Weapons Concerns
That fuel is currently under the seal of UN nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which said last week it had been informed by Tehran that the loading of the Russian nuclear fuel into the Bushehr reactor is scheduled to take place during the second quarter of 2009.
Vitaly Fedchenko, a nuclear researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, calculates on the basis of U.S. government data that the Bushehr plant would provide about 5 percent of Iran's annual domestic electricity consumption.
Fedchenko says that he thinks the technical significance of Bushehr's precommissioning tests has been overstated. "I do not think this has to be attached to some big significance, really, because this is just another step on the way to launching the reactor," Fedchenko says.
"It's just a technical procedure, really. Symbolically, yes, one can see that as a milestone or a significant step," he adds. "But technically, in terms of the actual development, it is just one of those steps which is needed to launch the reactor."
The Bushehr nuclear power plant
IAEA inspectors have been scrutinizing Iran's nuclear program closely amid concerns in the West that Tehran may be secretly trying to produce enough weapons-grade material to build a nuclear bomb.
In particular, there are concerns about centrifuges and uranium-enrichment activities at the separate Natanz facility in central Iran. Those concerns have raised suspicions about other aspects of Iran's nuclear program -- including Bushehr.
Iran argues that it has a right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for use in a peaceful nuclear-energy program. But uranium also can be used to build nuclear weapons if it is enriched further -- and that would be a violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty.
The UN Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions against Iran due to its refusal to suspend uranium-enrichment activities. Russia's Double Role
The United States and some European countries also have been critical of Russia's involvement in building the Bushehr facility in southwestern Iran.
But both Russia and Iran argue that the Bushehr project is purely civilian and cannot be used for any weapons program. Iran has pledged that spent fuel from the facility will be shipped back to Russia.
Earlier this month, Kiriyenko said the actual "technical launch" of the Bushehr plant was possible before the end of 2009 if there were no unforeseen delays.
The completion of Bushehr has been delayed by war and international political disputes in the three decades since work began there.
Russian technicians in Bushehr's control room
Since 1995, when Russia's construction contracts on Bushehr were signed, delays also have resulted from contractual disputes between Moscow and Tehran. But those disagreements now appear to have been resolved.
International pressure on Moscow may have also played a role in Russia's disputes with Iran over Bushehr. Moscow's involvement in the project has been controversial because of Russia's status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which imposed the sanctions on Iran because of its uranium-enrichment activities.
Political analysts suggest Moscow has used the Bushehr issue as a bargaining chip in its relations with both Tehran and Washington, and that it may continue to do so. In that sense, Iran could become a central issue in relations between U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Skeptics note that Iran is the world's fourth-largest producer of crude oil and does not need nuclear power to fulfill its domestic energy needs.
But Tehran says its nuclear program would generate electricity as an alternative to its fossil-fuel power plants so that it can earn money by exporting more oil and natural gas.