Major setback for Iran’s first N-plant: Report

Saturday, February 26, 2011

WASHINGTON - A newly completed nuclear reactor in Iran has run into serious problems and threatens to become a major embarrassment for the Iranian government that could delay its initial target of feeding electricity into the national grid this month, a media report said Saturday.

It has also raised questions if the trouble was sabotage, a startup problem, or possibly the beginning of the project’s end.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a report said that Iran had told its inspectors Wednesday that it was planning to unload nuclear fuel from its Bushehr reactor - the sign of a major upset, the New York Times reported.

Tehran has hailed the reactor as a showcase of its peaceful nuclear intentions and its imminent startup as a sign of quickening progress. But experts said the reactor, Iran’s first nuclear power plant, now threatens to become a major embarrassment, as engineers remove 163 fuel rods from its core, the daily said.

Iran gave no reason for the unexpected fuel unloading, but it has previously admitted that the Stuxnet computer worm infected the Bushehr reactor. On Friday, computer experts debated whether Stuxnet was responsible for the surprising development.

Russia, which provided the fuel to Iran, said earlier this month that the worm’s infection of the reactor should be probed, arguing that it might trigger a nuclear disaster. Other experts said those fears were overblown, but noted that the full workings of the Stuxnet worm remained unclear.

In interviews Friday, nuclear experts said the trouble behind the fuel unloading could range from minor safety issues and operational ineptitude to serious problems that would bring the reactor’s brief operational life to a premature end.

It could be simple and embarrassing all the way to ‘game over’, said David A. Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former official at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees nuclear reactors in the US.

Lochbaum added that having to unload a newly fuelled reactor was not unprecedented, but not an everyday occurrence. He said it happened perhaps once in every 25 or 30 fuellings.

The new report from the IAEA Friday - a regular quarterly review of the Iran nuclear program to the agency’s board - gave the reactor unloading only brief mention and devoted its bulk to an unusually toughly worded indictment of Iranian refusals to answer questions about what the inspectors called possible military dimensions of its nuclear programme.

The report alluded to new information recently received, suggesting continuing work toward a nuclear warhead. But the inspectors provided no details about the new information or how it was received.

The report Friday referred directly to concerns that Iran was working on the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.

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