WASHINGTON — Iran has crossed a new nuclear threshold, but it's one the Obama administration isn't worried about.
On Saturday, technicians began loading low-enriched uranium fuel supplied by Russia into Iran's first civilian nuclear reactor, and if all goes smoothly, the Bushehr plant could start producing electricity under United Nations monitoring late this year or early next.
"The International Atomic Energy Agency regularly inspects the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran. Iran began moving fuel assemblies to the plant's reactor compartment on 21 August 2010," Ayhan Evrensel, a press officer for the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a statement Saturday. "The agency is taking the appropriate verification measures in line with its established safeguards procedures."
Bushehr embodies what the administration and many experts consider an ideal solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute: The Islamic republic benefits from the peaceful nuclear energy to which it's entitled by international law, but the fuel comes from elsewhere, negating Iran's need to make its own via enrichment, a process that also can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear bombs.
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Moreover, under a 2007 accord negotiated by the Bush administration, the spent fuel rods will go back to Russia after they've cooled to prevent Iran from harvesting them for plutonium, the other essential component of nuclear weapons.
"Because the Bush administration did such a good job of neutralizing the Bushehr reactor, we don't view it as a proliferation threat," said a White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue freely.
Some experts, however, disagree. They warn that Iran could still use Bushehr to enhance its uranium enrichment program — located some 300 miles away at Natanz — that the U.N. Security Council is demanding be halted amid charges that it is part of a secret nuclear arms development project. Iran denies the allegation.
Critics of President Obama have seized on the issue to launch fresh attacks on the administration's reliance on tougher international sanctions to compel Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program and open negotiations.