Iran Announces Delay in Startup of Its Nuclear Reactor Following Cyber Attack, But Denies Any Link

September 30, 2010 - 4:56 AM
Iran's nuclear chief said Wednesday that the “enemies” of Iran had failed in their attempts to harm Iran's nuclear facilities through the use of a powerful new computer virus.

Iran nuke, Bushehr

The Bushehr nuclear power plant (Photo: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran)

(CNSNews.com) – Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor will not generate power before early 2011, about two months later than previously reported, the country’s nuclear chief has announced.

Ali Akbar Salehi gave no reason for the delay, but said Wednesday that the “enemies” of Iran had failed in attempts to harm the nuclear facilities through the use of a powerful new computer virus, which targets software that controls infrastructure.

He said the virus, known as Stuxnet, had infected some staff laptop computers at the Bushehr plant but not its main computer system.

When the transfer of fuel to the Russian-built reactor took place in August, the nuclear agency said the plant would begin producing electricity within two or three months.

Iranian officials acknowledged earlier this week that Stuxnet had affected sites throughout Iran, but did not identify them. On Sunday, Bushehr project manager Mahmoud Jafari told Iranian media the plant’s computer system had not been damaged.

Reports about Stuxnet’s emergence sparked feverish industry and media speculation that the virus may have been designed, possibly by a foreign government, specifically to target Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Ralph Langner, a German computer security researcher, analyzed Stuxnet as a sophisticated and directed attack.

“This was assembled by a highly qualified team of experts, involving some with specific control system expertise,” he wrote earlier. “This is not some hacker sitting in the basement of his parents' house. To me, it seems that the resources needed to stage this attack point to a nation state.”

“It’s like nothing we’ve seen before – both in what it does, and how it came to exist,” says computer security firm Symantec. “It is the first computer virus to be able to wreak havoc in the physical world. It is sophisticated, well-funded, and there are not many groups that could pull this kind of threat off.”

Some 60 percent of Stuxnet hits have been in Iran, but systems in other countries, including India and Indonesia, have also been affected. In fact, Symantec reported back in July that in the early days of the attack India and Indonesia were most heavily hit, with Iran coming in at third place, some way behind.

Still, the Iran theory has garnered significant attention.

Iranian IT and Communications Minister Reza Taghipour told the IRNA news agency Wednesday that Iran expected the U.S. and other “enemies” to try to target it with cyber warfare, but that Iranian systems were “impenetrable.”

Iran insists that all of its nuclear activity is peaceful, but the U.S. and allied governments suspect it is developing a nuclear weapons capability under the cover of the civilian program.

In a move designed to dispel concerns that Iran may try to separate plutonium, which could be used in a weapons program, Russia has undertaken to supply fuel for the reactor on condition that Iran ships the spent fuel back to Russia.

But despite the assertion by Western governments that this would remove the justification for enriching uranium at home, Iran says it will continue with enrichment as it plans to build another 20 nuclear power plants in the future.

Another concern about Bushehr is that the required “cooling” period before which the irradiated fuel can be returned to Russia could provide the Iranians with the time and opportunity to separate plutonium covertly, despite international supervision.

The standoff between the West and Iran over its nuclear programs has dragged on since 2003.

Last week, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany (P5+1) announced a new push to work towards a negotiated solution that “restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.”

Following a meeting in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday, the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Iran to return to the talks.

Tehran recently announced its readiness to resume talks, but said any negotiation must be conducted within the framework of an agreement brokered by Turkey and Brazil last May, under which Iran would send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad for processing.

The U.S. and other critics said the agreement did not resolve key unresolved questions about Iran’s intentions.