Iran has increased the number of centrifuges enriching uranium to 6,000, the country’s nuclear chief said today, marking Teheran’s latest defiance of UN demands to halt its nuclear program. Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh said Iran will continue to install more centrifuges and enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel for future Iranian power plants. In November 2008, Iran said it had 5,000 centrifuges running at the plant in the central city of Natanz. Uranium enriched to a low level is used to make nuclear fuel. Further enrichment makes it suitable for nuclear weapons.Also today, Iranian and Russian nuclear officials tested the first nuclear power plant built in Iran – a move likely to raise concerns among the US and its Western allies worried over Iranian nuclear ambitions.
In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the testing reflected the “Iranians are showing again that they are making progress in their nuclear race.”
“This should be understood as very bad news for the whole of the international community,” Palmor said, calling for “immediate and very determined steps in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.”
The pilot operations at the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor in the southern Iranian port of Bushehr – built with Russian assistance under a $1 billion contract – have long been delayed over construction and supply glitches.
It’s unclear when the reactor could be switched on. Test runs normally occur a few months before a reactor’s start-up.
The plant is to run on enriched uranium, which has worried the West because spent fuel could later be turned into plutonium, potential material for nuclear warheads. Iran has denied it is pursuing nuclear weapons and says its uranium enrichment program is exclusively aimed at generating electricity.
At the Bushehr plant, Iranian nuclear spokesman Mohsen Shirazi said virtual fuel – consisting of lead and meant to imitate enriched uranium because of its similar consistency – was being loaded into the reactor.
Russian nuclear agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko inspected the process with his Iranian counterpart, Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh.
Aghazadeh, who also heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said the test was going well and the virtual fuel was loaded “in a proper way.”
“Today was one of the most important days for the Iranian nation,” said Aghazadeh. “We are approaching full exploitation of this plant.”
Kiriyenko said work remains to be done to “speed up the launching of the site” but that the Russian-Iranian team was “approaching the final stage” before the plant becomes operational.
“This [test] is one of the major elements of an extensive project,” he said. “After the virtual fueling, we will check to see how the reactor will operate.”
US concerns over Bushehr softened somewhat after Iran agreed to return spent fuel from the reactor to Russia – a measure aimed to ensure it doesn’t extract plutonium to make atomic bombs.
Bushehr also will use enriched uranium imported from Russia, rather than domestically produced fuel. Fuel deliveries began in 2007.
The Bushehr reactor was initially to start in 2008 and some 700 Iranian engineers were trained in Russia over four years to operate the plant.
Shirazi told a group of reporters invited to Bushehr during today’s testing that no electricity would be produced that day.
Bushehr dates backs to 1974, when Iran signed an agreement to build the reactor with the German company Siemens, which withdrew from the project after 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1992, Iran signed an agreement with Russia to complete the project and work began on it in 1995.
Russia says there is no evidence that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and has joined China in weakening Western-backed sanctions in the UN Security Council, arguing that punishing Teheran too harshly for its nuclear activities would be counterproductive.
The UN Security Council has passed three sets of sanctions against Iran over uranium enrichment and is considering
Teheran also plans to build a 360-megawatt nuclear power plant in Darkhovin, in the southwestern Khuzestan province that would use locally produced enriched uranium.