Russia Sets Date for Key Iran Nuclear Step

By ANDREW E. KRAMER ** nytimes.com ** 8-13-2010
MOSCOW — In a move sure to disappoint United States diplomats trying to halt Iran’s nuclear program, the atomic energy agency ofRussia said Friday that it would take a crucial step later this month toward starting Iran’s first nuclear power plant.

The agency said that technicians would move tons of low-enriched uranium fuel from a storage site into the reactor on Aug. 21. The United States had asked Russia to hold off moves to start the plant until Iran assuaged concerns that it is using its civilian nuclear program to also build a bomb. For months, the Russians have been setting out an August start date for the plant, located near the southern Iranian city of Bushehr. Its construction and startup have been plagued by dozens of delays since Russia took over the work there in the mid 1990s, and it seemed plausible this could happen again.

The statement set a precise date for what the Russians have described as the first of a three-step process for starting one of their nuclear power plants.

In the first step, fuel is shifted from storage to the reactor chamber. In the second, it is loaded into the hardened stainless steel core. In a final step, the fuel rods are moved closer together to begin the nuclear reaction.

Russian officials have said the next two steps will take a few months.

The process will not introduce new nuclear material into Iran; Russia delivered the shipment of low-enriched uranium fuel under an agreement that would require Iran to send the spent fuel back to Russia for disposal. The Russian fuel has been kept underInternational Atomic Energy Agency seal.

Once the fuel is irradiated in the final step of the startup, it will begin to generate plutonium that could be used in an atomic weapon, which is why Russia had insisted on its return as a condition of completing and fueling the plant.

Western diplomats hoped the arrangement would persuade Iran to give up its own uranium enrichment program, though it has so far refused to do so.

Critics say the Russian contract at Bushehr, held by the state company Atomstroyexport, gives the Iranian government a justification to enrich uranium.

The Russians counter that the reactor itself is harmless if looked at apart from the effort to enrich uranium fuel.

In fact, the United States under a policy put in place by the Bush administration has supported the Russian fuel shipments, though not the decision to start the plant. The Russian fuel meets all the needs for the Bushehr plant, largely removing the rationale for an enrichment program.

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