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Iran’s first nuclear plant: a history of delays

Iran’s Russian-built first nuclear power plant, which engineers finally began loading with Russia-supplied atomic fuel on Saturday, has been delayed for more than three decades.

Its long-anticipated launch comes despite Moscow hardening its position on Iran’s nuclear programme and backing a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions in June over Tehran’s continued uranium enrichment work.

The sanctions targeting Iran’s military and nuclear programmes do not affect the Bushehr plant, whose actual commissioning is expected in October or November when the electricity it generates connects to the national grid.

The project, near the port city of Bushehr in southern Iran, was first launched by the US-backed shah of Iran in the 1970s using contractors from German company Siemens.

But it was shelved when the shah was ousted during the 1979 Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The power station lay unfinished throughout the 1980s as Iran battled internal opposition and the 1980-1988 war against Iraq.

It was revived in the late 1980s under the leadership of the new supreme leader Ali Khamenei and then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Throughout the early 1990s, Iran sought help for the project after being turned away by Siemens over nuclear proliferation concerns.

Despite being the world’s fourth largest crude oil producer and having the second largest gas reserves, Iran insists it needs nuclear power to sustain a growing population whose fossil fuels will eventually run out.

In 1994, Russia agreed to complete the construction and fuel the plant, with the supply deal committing Iran to returning any spent nuclear material.

A deal was finally signed in January 1995 after 18 months of negotiations and preliminary accords.

That was just the start of more delays and setbacks, as the Russian contractor was repeatedly forced to postpone completion.

In 2007, Russian contractor Atomstroiexport even accused Iran of falling behind in its payments, further jeopardising the project’s completion.

Iranian officials accused Moscow of playing for time to avoid the ire of the United States, which heads the campaign against Tehran’s nuclear drive.

The West believes Iran’s nuclear programme is a cover to build atomic weapons — a charge vehemently denied by Tehran.

The Bushehr power station will have a pressurised water reactor with a power of 1,000 megawatts, fuelled by enriched uranium.

It was constructed by more than 2,000 Russian engineers and workers living in a purpose-built village near the site.