Iran Struggles With Nuclear Plant Delays

Amid rumors of attacks by a sophisticated computer virus, Iran’s first nuclear power plant struggles to get up and running.

Iran’s first nuclear power plant in Bushehr will not be up and running until next year, according to reports from the Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi. Iran began loading Russian-made fuel rods into the plant in August, expecting to connect it to the national power grid by October.

Salehi said on Wednesday that, “the fuel will be loaded to the core of the reactor completely by early November and … two to three months after that, electricity will be added to the networks.”

The announcement follows a long history of delays with the Bushehr plant. Reza Aghazadeh, Salehi’s predecessor, promised to turn on the switch back in 2008. This year, Iranian officials have blamed intense heat for more recent delays. Meanwhile, American and Israeli officials continue to condemn the facility as instrumental to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

Speculation has been swirling over the past few days about a different reason for the delays. Last weekend, Iranian officials confirmed that the computer virus known as Stuxnet had infected industrial infrastructure systems throughout the country. One official declared that as many as 30,000 individual computers had been affected.

There are analysts who suspect that Stuxnet was created to specifically target an industrial facility. Is it possible that the worm was designed to target Iran’s nuclear program? Ralph Langner, a German cybersecurity researcher, told the Christian Science Monitor that “Stuxnet is a 100-percent-directed cyber attack aimed at destroying an industrial process in the physical world.” His research into the virus, which is supported by other experienced cybersecurity analysts, asserts that Stuxnet “is looking for one specific place and time to attack one specific factory or power plant in the entire world.”

Iranian officials deny these assertions and no damage has been reported at the Bushehr facility. But Langner and other cybersecurity experts say that no one knows what Stuxnet’s ultimate aim truly is.

What is clear about the virus is that it is incredibly sophisticated. Analysts agree that it must have required a team of developers supported by a wealthy individual, organization, or perhaps a government. Once Stuxnet identifies its target and certain parameters are met, Lagner believes that “we can expect that something will blow up soon. Something big.”

The United States and Israel have both the software development capabilities and the motive to devise a sabotage effort aimed at Iran, but is this a likely scenario? It is hard to believe that the Obama Administration would employ computer espionage to try to derail Iran’s nuclear program. Similarly, the Israeli government, while certainly worried about an Iranian nuclear bomb, would probably turn to other means to delay or destroy the program. What’s more, they would probably wait until closer to the point of no return before showing their hand.

If and when the Bushehr plant comes online, it is expected to generate 2.5 percent of the country’s total electricity supply. This would be an important victory for President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s government, which has repeatedly rebuffed international efforts to put a stop to the Iranian nuclear program. But Stuxnet may have found its target. We don’t really know if the virus is the main reason for the delay in opening up the plant, or exactly what damage it has already caused, or what it is waiting for.

One question will remain regardless of the outcome in Bushehr: who created the Stuxnet virus in the first place, and for what purpose?