Iran starts nuclear reactor, defends intent

** FILE ** Ali Akbar Salehi (right), head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, speaks with media during a press conference as cleric Gholamali Safaei Bushehri looks on at the Bushehr nuclear power plant outside the southern Iranian city of Bushehr on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)** FILE ** Ali Akbar Salehi (right), head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, speaks with media during a press conference as cleric Gholamali Safaei Bushehri looks on at the Bushehr nuclear power plant outside the southern Iranian city of Bushehr on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
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BUSHEHR, Iran (AP) — Trucks rumbled into Iran’s first reactor Saturday to begin loading tons of uranium fuel in a long-delayed startup touted by officials as both a symbol of the country’s peaceful intentions to produce nuclear energy as well as a triumph over Western pressure to rein in its nuclear ambitions.

The Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant will be internationally supervised, including a pledge by Russia to safeguard it against materials being diverted for any possible use in creating nuclear weapons. Iran’s agreement to allow the oversight was a rare compromise by the Islamic state over its atomic program.

Western powers have cautiously accepted the deal as a way to keep spent nuclear fuel from crossing over to any military use. They say it illustrates their primary struggle: to block Iran’s drive to create material that could be used for nuclear weapons and not its pursuit of peaceful nuclear power.

Iran has long declared it has a right like other nations to produce nuclear energy. The country’s nuclear chief described the startup as a “symbol of Iranian resistance and patience.”

“Despite all pressure, sanctions and hardships imposed by Western nations, we are now witnessing the startup of the largest symbol of Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities,” Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters inside the plant with its cream-colored dome overlooking the Persian Gulf in southern Iran.

This photo released on Friday, Aug. 20, 2010, by the Iranian Defense Ministry, claims to show the launch of the Qiam-1 liquid-fueled missile by Iranian armed forces, at an undisclosed location. Iran's defense minister says military forces have successfully test-fired a missile with enhanced guidance systems to hit ground targets. (AP Photo/Iranian Defense Ministry,Vahid Reza Alaei, HO

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This photo released on Friday, Aug. 20, 2010, by the Iranian Defense ... more >

In several significant ways, the Bushehr plant stands apart from the showdowns over Iranian uranium enrichment, a process that can be used both to produce nuclear energy or nuclear weapons. It also could offer a possible test run for proposals to ease the impasse.

The Russian agreement to control the supply of nuclear fuel at Bushehr eased opposition by Washington and allies. Bushehr’s operations are not covered by U.N. sanctions imposed after Iran refused to stop uranium enrichment. And last week, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Russian oversight at Bushehr is the “very model” offered Tehran under a U.N.-drafted plan unveiled last year.

That proposal — so far snubbed by Iran — called for Iran to halt uranium enrichment and get its supplies of reactor-ready material from abroad.

Western leaders fear Iran’s enrichment labs could one day churn out weapons-grade material. Iran claims it has no interest in nuclear arms, but refuses to give up the right to make its own fuel.

Iran has some of the world’s biggest oil reserves, but lacks refinery capacity to meet domestic demand and must repurchase fuel on international markets. Nuclear power is seen as both a goal to meet power needs and an important technological achievement for the Islamic government.

The French Foreign Ministry said the Russian deal shows Iran does not need to enrich uranium to benefit from civilian nuclear power.

“This clearly shows that the sanctions do not aim to deprive Iran of its right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful uses,” said the French statement.

In London, a Foreign Office junior minister, Alistair Burt, said the loading of Russian fuel at Bushehr “demonstrates that Iran can have the benefits of nuclear power.”

But conservative Iranian lawmaker Arsalan Faithipour struck a tone of defiance.

“The startup at Bushehr proved the ineffectiveness of sanctions,” he said.

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