Iran, Russia blame pump flaw for atom fuel removal
Tehran, March 1, 2011
Iran is believed to have told the UN atomic watchdog a broken pump is forcing it to remove fuel from its first nuclear power reactor, a new setback for the $1 billion project, experts familiar with the issue said.
They said it was a potentially significant problem likely to cause further delays for the Russian-built Bushehr plant, which has yet to start injecting power into Iran's national grid. Russia backed up the claim that a cooling pump had broken.
Iran has said Bushehr, first in a planned network of nuclear power plants, will start producing electricity early this year.
It says the plant is proof of the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme and that its uranium enrichment work is only meant to produce reactor fuel, rejecting Western accusations the Islamic Republic may be seeking to develop atomic bombs.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in Geneva on Monday: "Safety for us and reliability is more important than the start-up of a reactor at an earlier time."
He was speaking after talks with his EU counterpart which he said he hoped would lead to further talks with world powers on Iran's disputed nuclear programme.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report obtained by Reuters on Friday that Iran had told it that fuel assemblies would be removed from the core of the Bushehr reactor, just a few months after they were loaded.
The confidential IAEA document did not give a reason for the unusual action, which is expected to take place soon.
Russia's state-run nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, said in a statement: "Internal elements belonging to one of the four cooling pumps were found damaged." It said the cause of failure was a worn-out node and that checks on the other three pumps were being carried out.
Small pieces of metal about 3 mm-thick, or about one-eighth of an inch, had entered the cooling system, the agency said.
They would be rinsed out when the reactor vessel was cleaned. "After that fuel will be re-loaded into the reactor unit," the statement added, saying the pumps dated from the 1970s.
One independent expert said if not fixed, the problem could ultimately have led to a small radioactive leakage into the reactor's cooling water.
"They are probably very happy it happened before it went critical (the plant starting to operate) because now they can inspect the fuel a lot more easily," the expert, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters.
Russia's nuclear agency said that since the plant was not in operation, no additional equipment nor specialists were required.
Bushehr was begun by Germany's Siemens in the 1970s, before Iran's Islamic revolution, and has been dogged by delays. Fuel was loaded into the reactor four months ago but a January deadline for it to start producing electricity was missed. - Reuters