Iran has finished loading fuel into the Bushehr nuclear reactor's core, the country's Atomic Energy Agency chief was quoted by Press TV as saying Wednesday.

"The loading of the last fuel rods into the core of the Bushehr power plant completed the reactor's fueling process successfully and the plant was capped," Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted as saying.

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He stressed that all relevant tests had been conducted successfully, according to the report, and that the reactor will generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity within the next nine months.

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

The United States and some of its allies, however, believe the Bushehr plant is part of a civil energy program that Iran is using as cover for a secret aim to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Iran denies the accusation.

The Bushehr plant itself is not among the West's concerns because safeguards are in place to ensure that the spent fuel will be returned to Russia and cannot be diverted to weapons making.

Other facilities on Iran's nuclear map are of much deeper international concern, namely the underground uranium enrichment facility in the central city of Natanz. Iran says it only wants to enrich uranium to the safe, lower levels needed for making fuel for power stations like Bushehr.

But the technology offers Iran a potential pathway to weapons production, should it chose to enrich uranium to higher, weapons-grade levels.

In the case of Bushehr, the fuel has been provided by Russia, a fact that the international community has seized upon to argue that Iran does not need to produce its own fuel at home. Getting the fuel from abroad would help ensure the material is more closely monitored to prevent it from being further processed into weapons-grade material.

Iran, however, says it has the right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to run its own enrichment program.

The Bushehr project dates back to 1974, when Iran's US-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi contracted with the German company Siemens to build the reactor. The company withdrew from the project after the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the shah and brought hard-line clerics to power.

In 1992, Iran signed a $1 billion deal with Russia to complete the project and work began in 1995.

Under the contract, Bushehr was originally scheduled to come on stream in July 1999 but the startup has been delayed repeatedly by construction and supply glitches.

Moscow has cited technical reasons for the delays, but Iranian officials have sporadically criticized Russia, some calling Moscow an "unreliable partner."

The Bushehr plant overlooks the Persian Gulf and is visible from several miles away with its cream-colored dome dominating the green landscape.

Soldiers maintain a 24-hour watch on roads leading up to the plant, manning anti-aircraft guns and supported by numerous radar stations.

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