TEHRAN Iran will move closer to the start-up of its first nuclear power plant on Tuesday when it plans to load fuel into the core of the Bushehr reactor, a senior lawmaker said on Monday.
Iran says the Russian-built 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant will start producing energy in early 2011 after years of delays and that its launch shows the West is wrong to accuse it of seeking to develop atomic bombs.
The United States and its allies say the fact that Russia provides the fuel for Bushehr means that Iran does not need to enrich uranium itself, the part of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program they are most worried about.
"Despite all efforts and policies of America and the European Union to put sanctions on Iran, the fuel of the Bushehr power plant will be loaded into its core tomorrow," MP Alaeddin Boroujerdi was quoted as saying by official media.
Boroujerdi heads the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee. Iranian news agencies said celebrations would be held to mark Tuesday's event.
Iran insists it needs to enrich uranium -- material which can also be used to make weapons if refined much further -- to fuel future power stations designed to generate electricity and enable the country to export more of its gas and oil riches.
But Western powers believe Iran's uranium enrichment is part of a covert weapons drive and have imposed increasingly tough sanctions on Tehran to force it to halt the work.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has invited Iran for talks on its nuclear program in Vienna from November 15 to 17. Iran has indicated it welcomes the offer of talks, but has not yet formally replied to the invitation.
Tehran is showing no sign of backing down in the dispute, pressing ahead with enrichment activity despite the sanctions.
Iran began fuelling Bushehr in August and officials have said the reactor will begin generating energy early next year, a delay of several months following the spread of a global computer virus believed to have affected mainly Iran.
Experts say that firing up the $1-billion plant will not take Iran any closer to building a nuclear bomb since Russia will supply the enriched uranium for the reactor and take away spent fuel which could be used to make weapons-grade plutonium.
"In theory, there are legitimate concerns that ostensibly civilian reactors can be used for nuclear weapons," said research associate Ivanka Barzashka of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.
"In practice, using Bushehr for weapons will be very difficult," she said, noting also that U.N. nuclear inspectors would detect any illicit diversion of nuclear material.
Iranian officials have confirmed the Stuxnet virus had hit staff computers at the Bushehr plant but had not affected major systems there. Security experts say the computer worm may have been a state-sponsored attack on Iran's nuclear program and may have originated in the United States or Israel.
Iran says it plans to build 20 reactors in the next two decades, but Western analysts say this aim is unrealistic.