- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

BUSHEHR, Iran | Iranian and Russian engineers carried out a test-run of Iran’s first nuclear power plant Wednesday, a major step toward starting up a facility that the U.S. once hoped to prevent because of fears over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

The tests at the nuclear plant in the southern city of Bushehr brought the power station closer to full operation. But Iran and Russia’s top nuclear officials, touring the facility Wednesday, would not say when exactly electricity production would begin.

The opening of the 1,000-megawatt, light-water reactor, under construction for 14 years, has repeatedly been delayed by construction and supply glitches. Russia began shipping fuel for the plant in 2007. Iran has said it plans to operate the reactor by the end of the year.

Washington worried Iran would turn spent fuel from the plant’s reactor into plutonium, which could then be used to build a nuclear warhead, and U.S. officials pressured Moscow for years to stop helping Iran build the electricity-generating facility.

American opposition to the plant eased when Iran agreed in 2005 to return spent fuel to Russia to ensure it can’t be reprocessed into plutonium. Russia is providing enriched uranium fuel for the Bushehr plant.

The United States said Wednesday that the fuel deal with Russia shows Tehran does not need the most controversial part of its nuclear program - facilities to produce its own enriched uranium.

The arrangement with Russia is “an appropriate mechanism for Iran to see the benefits of the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said in Washington. “It also demonstrates that Iran does not need to develop any kind of indigenous uranium enrichment capacity.”

The U.N. Security Council, the U.S. and other countries have demanded that Iran suspend enrichment because the process not only can produce fuel for a reactor, but also can be used to develop highly enriched uranium needed to make nuclear bombs.

Iran denies it is seeking to build atomic weapons, and says it has a right to produce its own fuel for several nuclear power plants it plans to build.

Iranian officials on Wednesday talked about further progress in expanding the uranium enrichment program, saying the number of centrifuges operating at its enrichment plant has increased to 6,000, up from 5,000 in November.

In Israel, which has been one of the most vocal nations accusing Iran of seeking to develop atomic weapons, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the tests at Bushehr “should be understood as very bad news for the whole of the international community” because it shows Iran’s nuclear program is progressing.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that “time is slipping through our fingers” in preventing Iran from developing a weapon. He called for “harsh sanctions” and a “willingness to consider other options” if sanctions don’t succeed - an apparent reference to military action.

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