(photo credit: AP)
Iran said Sunday that it will begin operation of the country's first nuclear power plant in the summer of 2008 using half its 1,000 megawatt capacity, the official news agency IRNA reported.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the Russians, who are helping build the light-water reactor in the southern Iranian town of Bushehr, will have completed nuclear fuel shipments by the summer, paving the way for its launch.
"Half of the capacity of the Bushehr nuclear power plant will be launched in the summer of the coming year," IRNA quoted Mottaki as saying.
After months of delay, Russia began shipping nuclear fuel to Bushehr in mid-December and completed its second delivery on Friday. The Iranians have said Russia will send a total of 82 tons of nuclear fuel in eight shipments.
The process was held up by Russian claims that Iran had delayed construction payments for the reactor, but many observers suggested Moscow was also unhappy with Teheran's unwillingness to assure the international community that it was not developing nuclear arms.
Teheran heralded the initial shipment as a victory, saying it proved its nuclear program was peaceful, not a cover for weapons development as claimed by the US and some of its allies.
The US initially opposed Russian participation in building the Bushehr reactor and supplying it with fuel but reversed its position about a year ago to obtain Moscow's support for the first set of UN sanctions against Iran.
Washington also was influenced by Iran's agreement to return spent nuclear fuel from the reactor back to Russia to ensure it doesn't extract plutonium to make atomic bombs.
Russia's decision to begin shipping nuclear fuel to Iran followed a US intelligence report released earlier this month that concluded Teheran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in late 2003 and had not resumed it since. Iran says it never had a weapons program.
It also came after the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran had been truthful about its past uranium enrichment activities.
The US downplayed the first delivery, and both Washington and Moscow said the supply of nuclear fuel meant Iran had no need to continue its uranium enrichment program - a process that can provide fuel for a reactor or fissile material for a bomb.
Iran insisted it would continue enriching uranium because it needed to provide fuel to a 300-megawatt light-water reactor it was building in the southwestern town of Darkhovin.
Iranian officials have said they plan to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity through nuclear energy in the next two decades.
The US has pushed through two sets of UN sanctions against Iran demanding it suspend uranium enrichment and has been urging Security Council members to pass a third set.
Iran has defied UN demands, and Washington's effort to impose harsher measures has been complicated by the recent intelligence report and resistance from Russia and China.