WASHINGTON (AP) — A Russian engineer who worked on Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant during the final stages of construction says inexperienced workers, poor oversight and layers of bureaucracy contributed to a rash of equipment failures that delayed the reactor's startup for almost a year.
A U.S. expert said the engineer's account added to concerns about the long-term safety of the Middle East's first nuclear power station, for years a source of tension between Iran and the United States.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Alexander Bolgarov predicted that Iran's inexperience with nuclear power means it will rely on Russia to operate the reactor for the next five or six years. "They still do not have a nuclear culture necessary to run such a plant," said the Moscow-trained engineer, who returned home to Lithuania this spring after two years in Iran.
Bolgarov helped shepherd Bushehr through most of its shaky startup and is one of the first insiders to grant an on-the-record interview about the secretive project. The $1 billion plant was built by the Russian company Atomstroyexport and commissioned in a ceremony Sept. 13.
In the interview last month in Riga, Latvia, Bolgarov disclosed previously unreported details of glitches that plagued Bushehr as technicians struggled to get it started.
Careless welders failed to flush rusty sludge that was later found in fuel assemblies in the reactor core, he said, and other technicians may have mishandled a test that wrecked one of the plant's emergency pumps. He also said that the plant shut down in August after bearings on one of its huge turbines malfunctioned.
But Bolgarov disputed reports that Bushehr's computerized control system had been infected last year by Stuxnet, the computer worm, which attacked other Iranian nuclear facilities.
Western computer and nuclear experts said the malware may have caused 1,000 of almost 9,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant to spin out of control and self-destruct.
While Iran has long insisted it is only interested in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the U.S. and other countries suspect Tehran is seeking the technology and expertise needed to begin producing nuclear warheads.
John Bolton, an undersecretary of state for arms control during the George W. Bush administration, had advocated an air strike on Bushehr during the late stages of construction. He and others argue that its spent fuel could be diverted and reprocessed to yield plutonium for nuclear weapons.
But many U.S. officials and experts said this is unlikely because Tehran has agreed to buy Bushehr's uranium fuel rods from Russia and return the plutonium-bearing spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing. Tehran could renege on this deal, but only at the risk of further international isolation.
"Bushehr is not a stepping stone to a nuclear weapons program," said Olli Heinonen, a former inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Heinonen and others are more worried about Iran's uranium reprocessing plants at Natanz and Fordo, as well as its Arak heavy water research reactor, now under construction. All are capable of producing weapons-usable fissile material.
David Albright, a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said Bolgarov's description of construction errors raise questions about Bushehr's safety. "It's a little disturbing," he said, because hidden flaws in the facility could lead to a major accident in five or 10 years.
A 30-year-old German-made emergency cooling pump malfunctioned during testing last winter. Bolgarov said he was never able to determine if a plant technician was monitoring the pump during the test, as required, to ensure the critical piece of machinery worked properly.
After the accident, the plant's three other German-made emergency pumps were examined and found vulnerable to similar problems. Concerned that pieces of the failed pump had contaminated the core, Iranian officials removed Bushehr's 163 fuel-rod assemblies for examination in February and reinstalled them in April.
Aware of the challenges Iran faces, Russia has agreed to help run Bushehr for at least two years and possibly as many as five. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has sealed contracts to build Russian reactors to Turkey, Vietnam and Bangladesh — places that, like Iran, have zero experience with nuclear power — and wants to build reactors in other non-nuclear countries like Jordan, Egypt and Venezuela.
Associated Press writer Gary Peach reported from Riga, Latvia.