MOSCOW Inspectors from the U.N nuclear watchdog on Monday began examining uranium fuel that Russia is likely to send to Iran's first atomic power station, a Russian nuclear official said.
A spokesman for Russia's state nuclear fuel producer said International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors had arrived at a Siberian plant that was preparing fuel for Iran's Bushehr station that Russia is building.
"The IAEA team has arrived at the plant and started work," the spokesman said, referring to the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Plant where the fuel is stored.
The inspectors will check and seal the fuel, a key technical step if Russia is to ship the consignment to Iran.
Russia has so far given no concrete date for when the fuel will be dispatched, but says it would be sent six months before the plant's start-up which has been repeatedly delayed.
Under current Russian forecasts, the reactor at the plant could be started up in 2008 and nuclear fuel would have to arrive at the plant six months prior.
Sealing fuel is the clearest indication yet that Moscow is ready to send the uranium to Iran. Though the move is technical, it would up the stakes in the diplomatic crisis provoked by Western suspicions about Tehran's nuclear program.
The United States, Israel and key European Union nations suspect Iran is trying to build nuclear bombs.
But Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, says there is no evidence Tehran is seeking atomic weapons.
Iran says an IAEA report earlier this month vindicated its repeated statements that its nuclear program was purely civilian and showed that there would be no basis for further discussion of it in the United Nations Security Council.
The IAEA report said Iran had made big strides toward transparency about its nuclear activity but had yet to resolve outstanding questions. It also said Iran had expanded uranium enrichment.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna; editing by Richard Balmforth)