By Mitra Amiri
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's first nuclear power plant has finally begun to provide electricity to the national grid, official media reported on Sunday, a long-delayed milestone in the nuclear ambitions of a country the West fears is covertly try to develop atomic bombs.
"The Atomic Energy Agency announced that atomic electricity from Bushehr power plant joined the national grid with a power of around 60 megawatts on Saturday at 2329 (1859 GMT)," the official news agency IRNA reported.
The start-up will come as a relief to Tehran after many years of delays and false starts at the plant it hopes will show the world it has joined the nuclear club despite sanctions imposed in an attempt to curb its disputed nuclear progress.
The $1-billion, 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant will be formally inaugurated on September 12, by which time it will be operating at 40 percent capacity, Hamid-Khadem Qaemi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), told the state-controlled Arabic language TV station al-Alam.
The AEOI was not immediately available to comment.
The plant on the Gulf coast is the first of what Iran says will become a network of nuclear facilities that will reduce its reliance on its abundant fossil fuels and is a showpiece of what it says is a purely peaceful atomic programme.
Bushehr's start-up comes with Russia pushing to revive talks between global powers and Iran about its separate uranium enrichment work, seen abroad as a potential proliferation threat since highly refined uranium fuels atomic bombs.
Iran says it is enriching uranium only to lower levels suitable for power plant fuel or medical and agricultural uses.
But it has also started shifting its most sensitive enrichment operations to a mountain bunker that would be better protected against a possible pre-emptive U.S. or Israeli military strike.
Started by Germany's Siemens in the 1970s before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Bushehr project was taken over by Russian engineers in the 1990s. Delays fueled speculation Moscow was using the project as a diplomatic lever over Iran.
Nuclear fuel rods were transported into the reactor building amid great media fanfare more than a year ago, but were not loaded into the reactor until later in 2010 and even then had to be removed due to technical problems.
As recently as last month Iran told U.N. inspectors it had temporarily shut down the Bushehr reactor for technical reasons and, separately, a special said the plant was still a long way from joining the grid.
But analysts were not entirely surprised by Sunday's news.
"They have been doing the tests on it for some time. It is certainly no surprise that they are doing it around now," said Malcolm Grimston, a nuclear expert at London's Chatham House.
"It is a milestone in the sense that it is their first full scale power reactor but it doesn't change any of the major arguments (about Iran's wider nuclear programme)," he said.
London-based nuclear proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick said: "So many announcements have been made about imminent plans to connect Bushehr to the grid that it's hardly newsworthy now that it has actually happened."
On the fact that Bushehr was only running at 6 percent capacity, he said: "They are wise, of course, to take it slow. Bushehr has had too many problems for the operators to risk nuclear safety by trying to meet artificial political deadlines."
Experts say firing up the Bushehr plant will not bring Iran any closer to building a nuclear bomb because Russia will supply the enriched uranium for the reactor and repatriate spent fuel that could be reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium.
Fears have been voiced over potential safety problems for Bushehr which, like Fukushima, the site of Japan's devastating nuclear melt-down, is in a major earthquake zone, albeit not one at risk of a tsunami.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog (IAEA) has urged Iran to join the 1996 Convention on Nuclear Safety, a treaty designed to improve safeguards after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. An IAEA official said Iran would be the only country operating a nuclear power plant not to belong to the convention.
(Additional reporting Parisa Hafezi and by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)