Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant delayed: Stuxnet not to blame, official says

Iran officials said a leak at the Bushehr nuclear power plant will prevent it from beginning operation this year. The delay comes as experts suggest the facility might have been targeted by a foreign government using the Stuxnet computer worm.

Vahid Salemi/AP/file
An Iranian security officer directs media at the Bushehr nuclear power plant, with the reactor building visible in the background on Aug. 21. Russia has promised to prevent material at the site from being used in any potential weapons production, but there is speculation that the facility might have been attacked by the Stuxnet computer worm.

Iran’s Russian-built, repeatedly delayed nuclear power plant at Bushehr now won’t start producing electricity until early next year, Iranian officials say. But they say the delay has nothing to do with the Stuxnet worm, a malicious computer program that was found on computers at the site last week.

Iran did announce over the weekend the arrest of a number of “nuclear spies,” but the arrests were not officially linked to the Stuxnet computer worm nor were details provided about the arrested individuals. Officials insist that the malicious program affected only the personal computers of a few workers at the plant, and that all programs have been scanned and any detected presence of the Stuxnet worm removed.

The detection of the malicious program, or "malware," at Bushehr raised speculation that the Stuxnet worm was the work of either a government or a deep-pocketed and well-connected private group of hackers intending to shut down Bushehr.

Indeed, the discovery of the worm coincides with Western powers' attempts to relaunch negotiations with Tehran over its uranium-enrichment activities. Talks between Iran and the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent member countries plus Germany broke off a year ago after Iran rejected a plan for swapping a portion of Iran’s uranium stockpile for fuel.

But Iran’s top nuclear official, Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, said Monday that the cause of the new delay at Bushehr was a small leak in a pool near the facility's reactor. The leak has now has been repaired, he said. Radioactive fuel will be transferred to the plant’s core in mid-October, he added, with energy production beginning in early 2011.

Mr. Salehi had said in August that Bushehr would begin to produce electricity in November.

Bushehr had generally remained outside the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program, mainly because Russia is committed to oversight – providing the plant’s fuel and removing spent fuel for disposal. But the tense stand-off between Iran and international powers – combined with revelations in recent years of clandestine activities in Iran at secret nuclear sites – have raised some concerns about Bushehr that weren’t prevalent before.

Iranian officials have intimated that the Stuxnet worm was the work of its “enemies” in foreign intelligence services, but they have not elaborated, and foreign governments have remained quiet about the worm attack. The malware, which appears designed to seize control of computers at industrial operations and cause them to fail, has also shown up in the US, India, and Indonesia.

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