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Claims Stuxnet cleared from Bushehr nuclear reactor premature - new report

THE control systems of Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant penetrated by a computer worm unleashed last year could appear to be functioning normally while the reactor is melting down.

A new foreign intelligence report yesterday warned it was premature to assume the danger posed by the Stuxnet virus - which Iran admitted hit the laptops of technicians working at Bushehr - had passed.

The report, drawn up by a nation closely monitoring Iran's nuclear program and obtained by The Associated Press, warned of a possible Chernobyl-like disaster once the site becomes fully operational.

The report said conclusions drawn up by other watchdogs which claimed the danger had passed were premature and based on the "casual assessment" by Russian and Iranian scientists at Bushehr. With control systems disabled by the virus, the reactor would have the force of a "small nuclear bomb", it said.

"The minimum possible damage would be a meltdown of the reactor," it said.

"However, external damage and massive environmental destruction could also occur ... similar to the Chernobyl disaster."

The virus, known as Stuxnet, has the ability to send centrifuges spinning out of control and temporarily crippled Iran's uranium enrichment program. Some computer experts believe Stuxnet was work of Israel or the United States, two nations convinced that Iran wants to turn nuclear fuel into weapons-grade uranium. While it admitted technicians had battled with the malware, Iran has denied that the plant was affected or that Stuxnet was responsible for delays in the startup of the Russian-built reactor.

Only after outside revelations that its enrichment program was temporarily disrupted late last year by the mysterious virus did Iranian officials acknowledge the incident.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief representative to the IAEA, cut short attempts by AP to seek comment on possible damage by Stuxnet at Bushehr.

But Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, described how engineers at Bushehr "saw on their screens that the systems were functioning normally, when in fact they were running out of control," conjuring up a frightening dimension to the potential fallout from the virus. "The virus which is very toxic, very dangerous, could have had very serious implications," Mr Rogozin told reporters.

Experts are split on how powerful the Stuxnet virus might prove.

German cybersecurity researcher Ralph Langner said that, while the virus had infested the reactor's computers, "Stuxnet cannot technically mess with the systems in Bushehr".

"Bottom line: A thermonuclear explosion cannot be triggered by something like Stuxnet," Mr Langner, who has led research into Stuxnet's effects on the Siemens equipment running Iran's nuclear programs, said.

The IAEA - the UN monitor of Iran's nuclear activities - declined comment on damage at Bushehr. But officials, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the issue, have said the agency is unhappy with safety and operating standards at the reactor.

Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 exploded in 1986, spewing radiation over a large stretch of northern Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people were resettled from areas contaminated with radiation fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Related health problems still persist. Mr Langner told AP it could take about a year to clear the worm out of Bushehr's systems.

Western intelligence officials believe the site could be operational in coming months.

Source: http://www.news.com.au/technology/claims-stuxnet-cleared-from-bushehr-nuclear-reactor-premature-new-report/story-e6frfro0-1225998621986

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