TEHRAN // In a big setback to Iran's nuclear programme, technicians will have to unload fuel from the country's first atomic power plant because of an unspecified safety concern, a senior government official said.
The vague explanation raised questions about whether the mysterious computer worm known as Stuxnet might have caused more damage at the Bushehr plant than previously acknowledged. Other explanations are possible for unloading the fuel rods from the reactor core of the newly completed plant, including routine technical difficulties.
While the exact reason behind the fuel's removal is unclear, the admission is seen as a major embarrassment for Tehran because it has touted Bushehr,Iran's first atomic power plant, as its showcase nuclear facility and sees it as a source of national pride. When the Islamic republic began loading the fuel just four months ago, Iranian officials celebrated the achievement.
Iran's envoy to the UN nuclear monitoring agency in Vienna said that Russia, which provided the fuel and helped construct the Bushehr plant, had demanded that the fuel be taken out.
"Upon a demand from Russia, which is responsible for completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant, fuel assemblies from the core of the reactor will be unloaded for a period of time to carry out tests and take technical measurements," the semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted Ali Asghar Soltanieh as saying. "After the tests are conducted, [the fuel] will be placed in the core of the reactor once again."
"Iran always gives priority to the safety of the plant based on highest global standards," Mr Soltanieh added.
The spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran said the fuel unloading was nothing unusual.
"It's a kind of technical inspection and to obtain confidence about the safety of the reactor," Hamid Khadem Qaemi told the official IRNA news agency. He accused foreign media of blowing the issue out of proportion.
The Bushehr plant is not among the aspects of Iran's nuclear programme that are of top concern to the international community and is not directly subject to sanctions. It has international approval and is supervised by the UN's nuclear monitoring agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In a report released on Friday about Iran's nuclear programme, the IAEA said that Tehran informed the agency on Wednesday that it would have to unload the fuel rods. The agency said it and Tehran have agreed on the "necessary safeguards measures".
A senior international official familiar with Iran's nuclear programme said the IAEA had no further details. He said unloading and reloading fuel assemblies is not unusual before any reactor startup. The official asked for anonymity because his information was confidential.
Mr Soltanieh and other officials have not specified why the fuel had to be unloaded, but Iranian officials denied any link to the Stuxnet computer virus.
"Stuxnet has had no effect on the control systems at the Bushehr nuclear power plant," Nasser Rastkhah, a senior official in charge of nuclear security, told the official IRNA news agency.