|Experts say the Bushehr plant is not of grave concern, in part because Russia is fueling it [EPA]
Russia's state-owned Rosatom nuclear corporation has reportedly begun loading 80 tonnes of uranium fuelinto Iran's Bushehr nuclear power reactor, marking the penultimate step before the completion of a project 35 years in the making.
The long-delayed delivery prompted John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, to warn that Israel had only daysto destroy the reactor before the arrival of fuel would create a danger of nuclear fallout in the event of a bombing.
But the reactor at Bushehr - likely the first functioning nuclear power plant in the Middle East outside of Israel - has been in the works since the time of the shah, and non-proliferation experts say it is the least of their concerns in Iran.
The history of the reactor at Bushehr, a town on Iran's southern coast perched across the Gulf from Kuwait, dates to the final years of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last monarch to rule Iran before an Islamic revolution radically changed the course of the country.
Pahlavi was a supporter of nuclear power, and construction at Bushehrbegan on May 1, 1975, overseen by the German company Kraftwerk Union.
The ambitious original plan envisioned two power plants at the site, each producing around 1.3 gigawatts of power, but the Iranian revolution put a halt to the construction - which by then had reached an advanced stage - in 1979. Later, in the early 1990s, the Islamic Republic made an aborted attempt to restart the country's nuclear programme with help from China.
Construction began in 1975, four years before revolution would unseat Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi
One reactor has been built, construction on two others is planned to begin respectively in 2011 and 2012, while one other reactor was scrapped
The facility is subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, including on-site inspections, security cameras and permanent meters
Eventually, in 1994, Iran struck a deal with Russia to complete the construction of one reactor at Bushehr. The plan stalled for a decade - at one point, Russia blamed Iran for failing to make payments for the facility - and political pressure has increased in recent years, with the United Nations, United States, European Union and others passing sanctions aimed at preventing the expansion of Iran's nuclear programme.
In May, acting on EU sanctions that were stricter than those approved at the United Nations, Germany arrested several nationalsat an unnamed airport for allegedly purchasing dual-use technology on behalf of Russia that was bound for the Bushehr reactor. In August, Germany acted again, intercepting Bushehr-bound "switches and computer modules"at the Frankfurt airport that reportedly had been manufactured by the German company Siemens.
Nevertheless, it appears that Bushehr is finally ready to go online; Iranian authorities say it will connect to the country's grid by November at the latest.
According to a 2007 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, Iran hopes the reactor at Bushehr will produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity, part of a plan for nuclear power to generate 20,000 megawatts - or 10 per cent of the country's total capacity - by 2025.
'Not a risk'
John Bolton and others may consider Bushehr a dangerous step toward Iran possessing nuclear weapons - Israel bombarded Iraq's Osirak reactor in the late 1980s and probably another in Syria in 2007 - but experts in the non-proliferation community say the Iranian reactor is a minor concern.
"They don't have the enrichment capacity, they don't have the uranium capacity, they don't have the ability to continually fuel Bushehr," Paul Brannan, senior research analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), told Al Jazeera.
Iran's indigenous production of enriched uranium, the material that fuels both nuclear weapons and reactors, is a major source of concern for the United States and the European Union. Tehran has built enrichment facilities near the cities of Natanz and Qom with little transparency and continues to enrich some of its supply to the point necessary for an inefficient nuclear weapon - where the uranium-235 isotope makes up around 20 per cent of the material, rather than the 3 to 5 per cent used in civil nuclear power.
Iran says facilities like Natanz and Qom are necessary to supply its nascent nuclear power system, but they produce so little enriched uranium that they would not be able to fuel the Bushehr reactor.
"Iran makes this argument that Iran should have a uranium enrichment programme in order to have a power programme ... and Iran should have nuclear power like the Bushehr plant, but then the irony is that the Bushehr plant is being fueled by Russia and Iran can't fuel it themselves," Brannan said.
North Korean precedent
The primary fear expressed about Bushehr is that the Iranians could clandestinely divert the nuclear waste that is produced naturally by the light-water reactor and reprocess it into plutonium, the material used to make modern, efficient and more powerful nuclear weapons.
North Korea set the precedent for this transgression when it abruptly withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the early 1990s and began reprocessing waste from its reactors into plutonium.
But Brannan said there were three main reasons why this scenario is highly unlikely in Iran: the lack of Iranian capabilities to turn waste into plutonium, the potentially harmful effect that would have on relations with Russia, and the supervision of the IAEA.
The Bushehr reactor is subject to a safeguards agreement between the Islamic Republic and the IAEA. Alhough the details of the agreement are supposed to be shared only between the two, it likely involves allowing IAEA inspectors to make snap visits to the site, to view its operations remotely through closed-circuit cameras and to monitor measurements taken inside the facility using permanent, IAEA-installed sensors.
Such measures make it difficult for Iran to act clandestinely, but in addition to the safeguards agreement, Brannan said, Iran also lacks a reprocessing facility with the technical ability to turn the uranium by-product produced at a light-water reactor into plutonium.
Such a move also would almost certainly anger the Russians and break the terms of Iran's contract with Moscow, harming relations with a key trade and energy supply partner and one of the few countries - along with China - that is willing to defend Iran in the international arena.
As Mark Fitzpatrick, another analyst with ISIS, told Foreign Policy magazine about Bushehr, the Russians have committed themselvesto taking the reactor's spent fuel and reprocessing it themselves. Other countries, such as the United States, expect Russia to follow through on that promise.
Instead of fretting over Bushehr, the international community should be concerned with Iran's secretive work on other sites, Brannan said.
In the town of Darkhovin, near the border with Iraq, Iran has said it intends to construct the country's first domestically built and supplied nuclear power plant, which it hopes will produce 360 megawattsof power. Brannan said recent satellite imagery indicated the Iranians had probably yet to break ground at Darkhovin, but the specifics of the site remain unknown.
More concerning, Brannan said, is the project currently under way near the town of Arakin western Iran, where the government appears to be constructing a heavy-water reactor.
Unlike Bushehr, a light-water reactor, the power plant at Arak could produce a byproduct more easily reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium, Brannan said. A facility to produce heavy water has already been constructed in Iran, while the government has given variable dates over the next four years for the Arak reactor to open.
"[Arak is] actually the reactor I would worry more about," he said.