Nuke Plant in Iran Pulls Fuel for Safety Concerns

Monday, February 28, 2011 @ 11:02 AM gHale

Technicians in Iran’s nuclear program now have to unload fuel from the country’s first atomic power plant because of an unspecified safety concern, a senior government official said.

The vague explanation raised questions about whether Stuxnet caused more damage at the Bushehr plant than previously acknowledged. Other explanations are possible for unloading the fuel rods from the reactor core of the newly completed plant, including routine technical difficulties.

The spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said the fuel unloading was nothing unusual.

“It’s a kind of technical inspection and to obtain confidence about the safety of the reactor,” Hamid Khadem Qaemi told the official IRNA news agency. He accused foreign media of blowing the issue out of proportion.

The Bushehr plant is not among the aspects of Iran’s nuclear program that are of top concern to the international community and is not directly subject to sanctions. It has international approval and the U.N.’s nuclear monitoring agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, supervises the program.

Iranian officials denied any link to the Stuxnet computer virus.

“Stuxnet has had no effect on the control systems at the Bushehr nuclear power plant,” Nasser Rastkhah, a senior official in charge of nuclear security, told the official IRNA news agency.

Foreign intelligence reports have said the control systems at Bushehr were penetrated by the malware — malicious software designed to infiltrate computer systems — but Iran has said all along Stuxnet was only found on several laptops belonging to plant employees and didn’t affect the facility’s control systems.

Computer experts believe Stuxnet was the work of Israel or the United States, two nations convinced that Iran wants to turn nuclear fuel into weapons-grade uranium.

The Islamic Republic is reluctant to acknowledge setbacks to its nuclear activities, which it says focus on generating energy but are under U.N. sanctions because of concerns they could channel those activities toward making weapons. Only after outside revelations that its enrichment program suffered a disruption late last year by Stuxnet did Iranian officials acknowledge the incident.

The startup of the Bushehr power plant, a project completed with Russian help but beset by years of delays, would deliver Iran the central stated goal of its atomic work — the generation of nuclear power.

Iran said when it began inserting the fuel rods in October that the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor would begin pumping electricity to Iranian cities by December. But it pushed back the timing to February, citing a “small leak” and other unspecified reasons.