Sept. 12, 2011 — -- Iran celebrated the official opening of the nation's first nuclear power plant today, a worrisome milestone for Western critics of the Iranian nuclear program.
Iranian and Russian officials came together in a ceremony today for the formal launch of the long-delayed facility, the first nuclear plant in the Middle East, in the southern port city of Bushehr on Monday, Iranian state news said. The plant has been under construction by a Russian company for nearly two decades.
"The launch of Iran's first nuclear plant is a demonstration of self-belief and perseverance to defend sovereignty," Iran's Atomic Energy Organization chief Fereydounn Abbasi said, according to a report by Iran Press TV.
Abbasi said that the facility is currently running at 40 percent of its capacity and won't reach full capacity – 1,000 megawatts – until December.
Though the U.S. has publicly supported Iran's quest for a peaceful nuclear power program at Bushehr, some U.S. officials have said the civilian program could be used as a cover for a nuclear weapons program at other sites.
Today State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the official opening of the Bushehr plant was still "troubling" since Iran is now the only country in the world with an operating nuclear reactor that has not ratified the international Convention on Nuclear Safety.
The head of the International Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, said at the start of a five-day U.N. meeting today that the organization is "increasingly concerned" about Iran's nuclear program and that Iran was still not providing the agency "necessary cooperation" with its nuclear program.
Iran has maintained its nuclear ambitions are limited to strictly peaceful power plants.
The Bushehr nuclear plant's operation was made possible by a deal between Iran and Russia, under which Russia provides the facility's uranium-filled fuel rods. Iran is expected to send all spent fuel back to Russia.
The $1 billion deal, which was reached by the two countries in 1992, originally called for the plant to become operational in 1999, but it was plagued by a series of delays due to financial setbacks and political troubles.
Most recently, Iranian officials accused the U.S. and its allies of conspiring to damage its nuclear activities when the Stuxnet computer worm was found on the computers of several employees at the Bushehr nuclear plant last summer. While it was not known to affect operations at Bushehr, the worm is suspected of successfully damaging centrifuges at a separate Iranian nuclear facility which is also in development.
Although the U.S. never accepted -- or denied -- responsibility for the virus, a January 2010 cable released by WikiLeaks earlier this year revealed that the U.S. was at that time considering advice by a German thinktank that "covert sabotage" would be the most effective way to disable Iran's nuclear program.
In January this year, the New York Times reported the Stuxnet worm was the brainchild of a joint U.S.-Israeli project and several cyber security experts have told ABC News both the U.S. and Israel are on a short list of countries capable of pulling of such a complex and sophisticated cyber attack.