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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iran Tests Its First Nuclear Power Plant

ReutersA Russian security official watching as journalists tour the control room of the Bushehr nuclear plant Wednesday.
BUSHEHR, Iran -- Iranian and Russian officials began a test run of Iran's first nuclear plant on Wednesday, a major step toward beginning full operations at the facility, which has long raised concerns from the United States and its allies over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The pilot operations at the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor, built with Russian assistance under a $1 billion contract, have long been delayed over construction and supply glitches.

It's unclear when the reactor could be switched on. Test runs normally occur a few months before a reactor's startup.

Wednesday's tests were a computer run to ensure that the reactor's processes work properly. For the tests, technicians loaded a "virtual fuel" of lead into the reactor to imitate the density of enriched uranium, said Iranian nuclear spokesman Mohsen Shirazi.

The aim is to run the equipment and ensure that there are no malfunctions when actual enriched uranium fuel is put in. No electricity is produced during the testing.

"This [test] is one of the major elements of an extensive project," he said.

Once the virtual fuel is in place, "we will check to see how the reactor will operate," said Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko, who was inspecting the process.

Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, who heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said the test was going well and engineers told him that they expected no problems in the test run.

"Today was one of the most important days for the Iranian nation," Aghazadeh told reporters. "We are approaching full exploitation of this plant."

Kiriyenko said Bushehr witnessed "remarkable progress in recent months" but that work remains to be done to "speed up the launching of the site."

The Russian-Iranian team was "approaching the final stage" before the plant becomes operational, he said.

The plant, which will run on enriched uranium imported from Russia, has worried the West because the spent fuel could later be turned into plutonium, potential material for nuclear warheads.

U.S. concerns over the reactor softened somewhat after Iran agreed to return spent fuel to Russia to ensure that Tehran does not reprocess it into plutonium. Russia's fuel deliveries to Iran began in 2007.

In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, "Iranians are showing again that they are making progress in their nuclear race.

"This should be understood as very bad news for the whole of the international community," Palmor said, calling for "immediate and very determined steps in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power."

The Bushehr reactor was initially to start in 2008, and some 700 Iranian engineers were trained in Russia over four years to operate the plant.

The Bushehr project dates back to 1974, when Iran's U.S.-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi signed an agreement to build the reactor with the German company Siemens. The company withdrew from the project after the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the shah. In 1992, Iran signed an agreement with Russia to complete the project and work began on it in 1995.