Iranian and Russian engineers began loading fuel into Iran's first nuclear power plant on Saturday, a major milestone as Tehran forges ahead with its atomic program despite UN sanctions.
State television showed live pictures of Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi and his Russian counterpart looking on at what appeared to be a fuel rod suspended from the ceiling.
Later on Saturday, Salehi sent a firm message to the Western world. "As of now the Bushehr reactor is a power plant since fuel has been loaded into it and therefore attacking it would be considered a crime," he said.
In an interview with Iranian TV, Salehi, who also serves as Iranian vice president, said: "Of course, we do not expect it to be attacked but it's important that the enemies take this into account."
He added that it was still early to talk about another reactor for the production of electricity such as Bushehr but noted that Iran has plans in that direction. "It is still too early to talk about it. We shall give the information on this later on."
The weeklong operation to load uranium fuel into the reactor at the Bushehr power plant in southern Iran is the first step in starting up a facility the US once hoped to prevent because of fears over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
"The startup operations will be a big success for Iran," conservative lawmaker Javad Karimi said in Tehran. "It also shows Iran's resolve and capability in pursuing its nuclear activities."
Russia, which helped finish building the plant, has pledged to safeguard the site and prevent spent nuclear fuel from being shifted to a possible weapons program. After years of delaying its completion, Moscow says it believes the Bushehr project is essential for persuading Iran to cooperate with international efforts to ensure Iran does not develop the bomb.
The United States, while no longer formally objecting to the plant, disagrees and says Iran should not be rewarded while it continues to defy UN demands to halt enrichment of uranium, a process used to produce fuel for power plants but which can also be used in weapons production.
On Saturday, a first truckload of fuel was taken from a storage site to a fuel "pool" inside the reactor building. Over the next 10 days, 163 fuel assemblies - equal to 80 tons of uranium fuel - will be moved inside the building and then into the reactor core.
It will then be at least another two months before the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor is pumping electricity to Iranian cities.
Iran denies an intention to develop nuclear weapons, saying it only wants to generate power with a network of nuclear plants it plans to build.
The Bushehr plant is not considered a proliferation risk because the terms of the deal commit the Iranians to allowing the Russians to retrieve all used reactor fuel for reprocessing. Spent fuel contains plutonium, which can be used to make atomic weapons. Additionally, Iran has said that International Atomic Energy Agency experts will be able to verify that none of the fresh fuel or waste is diverted.
Of greater concern to the West, however, are Iran's stated plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment sites inside protected mountain strongholds. Iran said recently it will begin construction on the first one in March in defiance of the UN sanctions.
Nationwide celebrations were planned for Saturday's fuel loading at Bushehr.
"I thank the Russian government and nation, which cooperated with the great Iranian nation and registered their name in Islamic Iran's golden history," said Iranian Vice President and nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi. "Today is a historic day and will be remembered in history."
He spoke at a news conference inside the plant with the head of Russia's state-run nuclear corporation, Sergei Kiriyenko.
Iran's hard-liners consider the completion of the plant to be a show of defiance against UN Security Council sanctions that seek to slow Iran's nuclear advances.
Hard-line leader Hamid Reza Taraqi said the launch will boost Iran's international standing and "will show the failure of all sanctions" against Iran.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated Friday that Tehran was ready to resume negotiations with the six major powers trying to curb Iran's program - the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany.
Ahmadinejad, however, insisted Iran would reject calls to completely halt uranium enrichment, a key UN demand. The president had earlier said the talks could start in September, but in an interview with Japan's biggest newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, he said the talks could start as early as this month.
Russia signed a $1 billion contract to build the Bushehr plant in 1995 but has dragged its feet on completing the work.
Moscow had cited technical reasons for the delays, but analysts say Russia used the project to try to press Iran to ease its defiance over its nuclear program.
The uranium fuel used at Bushehr is well below the more than 90% enrichment needed for a nuclear warhead. Iran is already producing its own uranium enriched to the Bushehr level - about 3.5%. It also has started a pilot program of enriching uranium to 20%, which officials say is needed for a medical research reactor.
The Bushehr plant overlooks the Persian Gulf and is visible from several miles (kilometers) away with its cream-colored dome dominating the green landscape. Soldiers maintain a 24-hour watch on roads leading up to the plant, manning anti-aircraft guns and supported by numerous radar stations.
There are several housing facilities for employees inside the complex plus a separate large compound housing the families of Russian experts and technicians. The site is about 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) south of Tehran.
Russians began shipping fuel for the plant in 2007 and carried out a test-run of the plant in February 2009.
Iran says it plans to build other reactors and says designs for a second rector in southwestern Iran are taking shape.
The Bushehr project dates backs to 1974, when Iran's US-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi contracted with the German company Siemens to build the reactor. The company withdrew from the project after the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the shah.
The partially finished plant later sustained damages after it was bombed by Iraq during its 1980-88 war against Iran.
Before making the Russian deal to complete Bushehr, Iran signed pacts with Argentina, Spain and other countries only to see them canceled under US pressure.
Reuters contributed to this report
- Follow Ynetnews on Facebook