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Russia set for Iran's nuclear plant launch, top nuclear official says

By Maxim Tkachenko, CNN
  • A Saturday ceremony at Iran's Bushehr nuclear facilty will mark delivery of nuclear fuel
  • The fuel comes from Russia, the prime contractor for the facility
  • Iran says the facility will create atomic energy
  • Other nations fear it could be used for nuclear weapons

Moscow, Russia (CNN) -- Russia's top nuclear official Thursday called the pending supply of nuclear fuel to Iran's first atomic energy plant "an event of crucial importance" that proves that "Russia always fulfills its (international) obligations."

Sergei Kiriyenko, general director of Rosatom, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, debriefed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the August 21 arrival of fuel at the Bushehr facility, which Iran says will create atomic energy but which other nations fear could be used for nuclear weapons.

"The physical launch of the station will be controlled by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors," Kiriyenko told Putin, according to a transcript of their meeting published on the Russian government website.

"They will unseal the containers with the fuel that we supplied them more than a year ago, after coordinating this deal with all our international partners. So now this fuel will be unsealed and moved into the reactor compartment," Kiriyenko said. "This marks the beginning of the physical launch of the station -- it turns from a construction project into an operating one," he said.

It is important that Russia adheres to its policy that any country in the world has a right to develop its peaceful nuclear energy program under the IAEA control and conforming to international norms and provisions, Kiriyenko said. It is also important to note that Russia, being the prime contractor for the Bushehr facility, conducted this international project in conjunction with more than 10 other countries, he said.

Kiriyenko and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, joined by IEAE officials, will observe the ceremony of the nuclear fuel delivery to the Bushehr facility scheduled for 9:30 a.m. (2 a.m. ET) Saturday, Rosatom said.

Russian atomic energy officials expect the fuel to be loaded into the plant's first generating unit's reactor in late September. Following a number of technical procedures, the facility should be capable of producing electricity in November.

Under the agreement, spent nuclear fuel from the plant will be sent back to Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking to Russian reporters in the Black Sea resort of Sochi Wednesday, brushed off Western concerns about the Bushehr facility, calling it "the most important anchor holding Iran to the nonproliferation regime," according to the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti.

When asked to comment on statements in the West that Russia's construction of the nuclear plant gives Iran the wrong signal, Lavrov, as quoted by the Interfax news agency, said, "I would advise those who consider it the wrong signal to consult classics, such as George Bush, the former U.S. president, who called the Bushehr project a 'paragon' for cooperation with Iran, including cooperation in the nuclear industry."

According to the Russian company Atomstroiexport, which is the prime contractor of the project, the German Kraftwerk Union AG (Siemens) began the construction of the plant in 1974, but abandoned it in 1980 shortly after the Islamic revolution in Iran. Atomstroyexport was contracted to finish the plant in 1992, integrating and adapting Russian equipment to the German project.

The Bushehr facility was originally scheduled for to come online in 2007 but the date for commissioning the plant has been postponed a number of times due to various technical, financial and political factors.

The president of the independent Moscow-based Institute for Middle East Studies, Yevgeny Satanovsky, said the construction of the facility has been a great challenge for both countries.

"For Russia, completing Bushehr was a very sophisticated task because it had to pick it up from another contractor. You spend more money, effort and technological wisdom than if you had to build it from scratch yourself," he said in an interview with CNN. "And Russia managed to do it without undermining its relations with the West -- something that our Iranian customers would welcome with great pleasure, and something that they had actually attempted to provoke more than once".

"For Iran, the Bushehr launch means that its nuclear program has some kind of an international credibility in which Iran can operate despite the exotic speeches of its president. ... I can't exclude that sooner or later, when many problems surrounding Iran will go away together with its current regime, when Iran once again joints the international community as a trusted partner and normalizes its relations with Israel, atomic power plants like this will become the basis of Iranian energy program," Satanovsky said.

"And let's not forget that Iran is a country where prestige means a lot -- it's going to be the first Middle East country to have a nuclear power plant. That's very important for Iran, it bolsters up its geopolitical claims as a regional superpower," he said.

Satanovsky believes that there are no links between the Bushehr power plant and Iran's alleged secret nuclear program -- except just one.

"And this link is very simple," he said. "Since the mid 1990s, the Bushehr construction has served as a perfect smokescreen for Iran which allowed it, on the one hand, to stir up tensions between Russia, the West and Israel, and get them involved in complicated international policy issues, and on the other, to meanwhile advance its own nuclear weapons capacity".