Saturday, February 26, 2011

Iran Forced to Remove Nuclear Fuel Rods From Bushehr

Holy Chernobyl. Sounds like trouble in nuke paradise.

(Monsters and Critics) — Iran, admitting to technical problems with its nuclear power plant at Bushehr, may have to exchange the facility’s entire core, diplomatic sources said Saturday in Vienna.

The diplomats were commenting a day after Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA in Vienna that it had encountered problems at the plant in Bushehr, which had been scheduled to start producing electricity this month. While the Iranian report to the IAEA apparently did not specify how serious matter was — whether something minor or a major problem — the diplomats said the entire core must be removed and replaced. The Iranian report had said that all 163 fuel rods would have to be removed from the reactor core. The diplomatic sources said that there were problems with all the fuel rods.

Nuclear power experts noted that smaller problems with nuclear fuel rods are common when starting up a reactor, but that the replacement of the entire core was an issue of a much greater magnitude.

There was also speculation about what had caused the problems in the Russian-designed nuclear facility, which was opened in August 2010, with Russia also supplying the initial 82 tons of nuclear fuel for the plant. The speculation ranged from the problems caused by the Stuxnet computer worm which had attacked Iran’s nuclear programme last year, to suggestions of intentional sabotage by Russia which has come to have serious doubts about Iran’s insistence that its nuclear activities are purely for peaceful purposes.

One high-level diplomat in Vienna who spoke on condition of anonymity said ‘it isn’t our job to speculate about the reasons.’ But an expert in Washington, David Albright, said it raised questions about Iran’s nuclear know-how. ‘This could represent a substantial setback to their programme,’ Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told the New York Times. ‘It raises questions of whether Iran can operate a modern nuclear reactor safely,’ he said.

‘The stakes are very high. You can have a Chernobyl-style accident with this kind of reactor, and there is lots of questions about that possibility in the region,’ Albright added, referring to the April 1986 nuclear plant meltdown at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine.

Iran to 'remove fuel' from Bushehr nuclear plant


Iran said on Saturday it is removing the fuel from the reactor of a Russian-built nuclear power plant, a move seen as a big blow to its controversial nuclear programme. Skip related content

The decision to remove the fuel from the reactor of the nuclear plant in the southern city of Bushehr comes just months before the facility - which has seen a roller-coaster ride since its construction began in the 1970s - was scheduled to generate electricity.

"Based on the recommendation of Russia, which is in charge of completing the Bushehr atomic power plant, the fuel inside the reactor core will be taken out for a while to conduct some experiments and technical work," Iran's envoy to the UN atomic watchdog, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told the ISNA news agency.

"After the experiments, it will again be installed in the core of the reactor." He did not specify when the experiments would be completed.

Iran had started loading the fuel into the reactor in October after the "physical launch" of the plant by Moscow on August 21.

In January, Iran's former atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi said the plant would be ready to generate electricity on April 9 after operations began in November.

The decision to remove the fuel rods, also supplied by Russia, is the latest setback in the more than three-decade old history of the plant, which was first launched by the US-backed shah using contractors from German company Siemens.

But it was shelved when the shah was ousted in the Islamic revolution of 1979 and it lay unfinished through the 1980s as Iran battled internal opposition and a devastating eight-year war with Iraq.

It was revived in the late 1980s after current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeded revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In the early 1990s, Iran sought help for the project after being turned away by Siemens over nuclear proliferation concerns.

In 1994, Russia agreed to complete the plant and provide the fuel, with the supply deal committing Iran to returning the spent fuel.

A deal was finally signed in January 1995 after 18 months of negotiations and preliminary accords.

That was just the start of a spate of delays and setbacks, as the Russian contractor was repeatedly forced to postpone completion.

In 2007, Russian contractor Atomstroiexport even accused Iran of falling behind in its payments, further jeopardising the project's completion.

But finally on August 21 last year, Russian and Iranian engineers declared the physical launch of the plant, a move undertaken despite Moscow hardening its stance against Tehran's nuclear programme by voting for a new sanctions resolution at the UN Security Council.

The West, which suspects Iran's nuclear programme is cover for a weapons drive - a charge vehemently denied by Tehran - does not see Bushehr as posing any "proliferation risk," however.

The plant has faced hiccups even after its physical launch, with officials blaming the delays in generating electricity on a range of factors, including Bushehr's "severe weather."

But they deny it was hit by the malicious Stuxent computer worm which struck industrial computers in Iran, although they acknowledge that the personal computers of some personnel at Bushehr were infected with it.

In January, The New York Times reported that US and Israeli intelligence services collaborated to develop the Stuxnet virus to sabotage Iran's nuclear programme and the Bushehr plant could have been one of the targets.

On Saturday, Nasser Rastkhah, head of Iran's nuclear safety system, reiterated to state news agency IRNA that Stuxnet had "no effect on the controls of the Bushehr atomic plant."

Bushehr is a pressurised water reactor with a capacity to produce 1,000 megawatts of power.

It was constructed by more than 2,000 Russian engineers and workers living in a purpose-built village near the site.

Iran, which has some of the world's largest oil and gas reserves, says it wants to develop nuclear power so it can use those reserves judiciously.

Special thanks to Nurit G.

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