After decades of setbacks, Iran's first nuclear power reactor started operations May 8, according to Atomstroyexport, the Russian state company responsible for the construction and initial operations of the reactor. In a May 10 statement, the firm said that the reactor, located near the coastal city of Bushehr, achieved "the minimum controlled power level" and its first sustained chained reaction two days earlier.
Russian and Iranian officials said in May that it will take weeks for the reactor to reach full power and start generating electricity.
The reactor has undergone a long and complicated construction history with perennial delays. Germany's Kraftwerk Union began construction of two reactors at Bushehr in 1975 under a commission by the shah, but the project was discontinued following the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Moscow agreed to take over construction of the first reactor in 1992 with work beginning three years later. Completion of the project has stalled several times since the initial deadline in July 1999.
In public statements, Russian officials have cited technical and financial reasons for the setbacks, but diplomats familiar with the process have said that Moscow also held up construction to place political pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
The latest delay occurred in February when one of the reactor's cooling pumps was found damaged, leading to a last-minute unloading of the fuel. (See ACT, April 2011.)
The technical hurdle occurred just weeks before a series of natural disasters crippled a Japanese nuclear power plant and spread radiation from the reactors, raising broader fears about the safety of nuclear reactors, including the Bushehr plant.
Florence Mangin, the French permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), raised such concerns May 5, citing Iran's unwillingness to join a key international accord on nuclear safety. Azerbaijan's Trend news agency quoted Mangin as stating that her concerns about Bushehr were not based on the reactor design, but were "a matter of global safety environment, regulatory infrastructure and safety culture." The French embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for confirmation of and elaboration on Mangin's reported remarks.
"Iran is …