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Sun 15 Apr 2007 02:58 PM

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Iran seeks bids for two nuclear plants

Planned atomic plants in southwest Iran will partly run on fuel produced at home, says official.

Iran said on Sunday it would seek bids in the next few days for two new nuclear power plants and will partly run them on fuel produced at home, a process the West fears could lead to material for building atomic bombs.

Ahmad Fayazbakhsh, an official at Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, said the power plants would each have capacity for 1,000 to 1,600 MW and would be built at Bushehr, the southwest port city where Russians are building Iran's first atomic plant.

The West fears Iran's civilian nuclear programme is a smokescreen for atomic weapon ambitions, a charge Tehran denies.

A Western diplomat said the tender announcement appeared to be aimed at justifying Iran's statement on Monday that it had expanded work to make atomic fuel in defiance of a U.N. demand to halt uranium enrichment, a process which can be used to make bombs.

"Two international tenders in the coming days will be issued by Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation ... and they [the two plants] will be built at Bushehr," Fayazbakhsh, in charge of the nuclear power reactors at the Atomic Energy Organisation, said.

"Because we have the capability to produce nuclear fuel inside the country, in the long term, part of the fuel for the reactors will be provided by Iran and the rest will be imported," he told a news conference.

Monday's announcement by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the country had begun enrichment on an "industrial scale" drew condemnation from the West.

Russia, Iran's closest big power ally, questioned if Tehran had achieved such a scale.

"I rather take it [the statement on power plant tenders] as another act of politics," said the Western diplomat. "They need to prove that their [enrichment] programme is peaceful."

Russia is due to supply fuel for the plant it is now building but the first shipment that had been due in March was postponed ostensibly because of row over payment delays. Iran denies missing payments. The plant has taken years to complete.

NUCLEAR POWER NETWORK

Iran's refusal to heed U.N. demands for it to stop enriching uranium has prompted two rounds of sanctions since December.

Despite its claim to have started industrial enrichment, the U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran's atomic fuel work was still in the early stages and said it was running several hundred centrifuges not the thousands associated with industrial-scale processing.

The more centrifuges Iran operates the quicker it could enrich enough fuel to the high levels needed for a bomb, if that was its aim. But Western experts say Iran is still several years away from building a warhead.

Iran had said it would announce tenders for two new nuclear plants last year. Iran has said it wants to build a network nuclear power plants with a capacity for 20,000 MW by 2020.

Asked if Europeans had shown any interest in Iran's tender plans, Fayazbakhsh said: "In private meetings, they showed serious interest to participate." But he did not name any firms.

Asked if firms from the United States, Iran's arch-foe, could bid, he said: "Any company can participate."

Documents showed to reporters said firms wishing to participate should register within 15 days from April 25 in Tehran or at the organisation's representative office in Vienna. Bids would be opened on August 8th, the documents said.

Iran said it wanted 36% of the work to be carried out by local contractors on what it said would be light-water reactors and also wanted bidders to submit financing offers.

It said it expected prices in the range of $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion for each 1,000 MW plant. Fayazbakhsh said he expected each plant to take nine to 11 years to complete.

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