Iranian nuclear plant on schedule: Russian minister
TEHRAN (AFP) Dec 23, 2002
Russia's visiting atomic energy minister said Monday the construction of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant was on schedule, and that Moscow and Tehran were close to a deal on the return of nuclear waste.

"Russia has planned for the construction and completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, and is trying to make its first stage operational on the specified date," Alexander Rumyantsev was quoted as saying by Iranian state television.

The first reactor at the plant in Bushehr, southern Iran, is scheduled to be loaded with fuel by the end of 2003 and come on stream by mid-2004.

After talks with Iran's atomic energy authority chief Gholam Reza Aghazadeh -- who is pushing for construction to be accelerated -- Rumyantsev said preliminary agreements had been reached on the return to Russia of spent fuel.

Rumyantsev is seeking to strike an agreement for the return of nuclear waste from the Russian-built plant in southern Iran, radioactive waste the United States fears could be diverted to the secret development of nuclear weapons.

Russia is refusing to deliver plutonium until a deal is signed.

The minister's four-day visit, which includes a trip to Bushehr on Tuesday, comes amid an intense diplomatic wrangle between Moscow and Washington over Russia's nuclear cooperation with a country that has been branded as part of an "axis of evil" by US President George W. Bush.

Earlier this month, Washington identified two sites in Arak and Natanz -- in the centre of the country -- it said were part of Iran's fledgling covert nuclear weapons programme and urged Moscow to take action.

The US has also voiced suspicions over why Iran -- which has the world's second-largest natural gas reserves -- wants nuclear power.

But Iran's powerful former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who met with Rumyantsev on Monday, dismissed those fears.

"Although the United States will continue to make a fuss, the world will witness Iran's peaceful cooperation with Russia in the framework of international regulations for the non-military use of the resource," he was quoted as saying by state radio.

"Benefiting from peaceful nuclear knowledge is a indisputable right of IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) members, including the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Rafsanjani also dismissed US pressure on Russia as "blackmail".

Russia has vigorously dismissed suggestions its Bushehr project and other forms of military cooperation with Tehran were helping Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

The Bushehr project, picked up by Russia after Germany's Siemens pulled out of an earlier project, is worth an estimated 800 million dollars.

IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei is to visit Iran on February 25 to examine the Natanz and Arak facilities and possibly other sites, the Vienna-based organisation has said.