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Iran nuclear plant shutdown due to 'leak'

Mystery delay unrelated to Stuxnet infection, claims minister

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Delays in bringing Iran's nuclear plant online at Bushehr are due to a "small leak" and nothing to do with the infamous Stuxnet worm, according to the country's energy minister.

Bushehr was due to begin producing electricity in November, following the transfer of fuel to the core in September, but power production is being delayed until "early 2011" following a leak in a storage pool, according to Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's vice president and political boss of its nuclear programme, AP reports. Salehi did not specify whether radioactive material was involved in the leak, much less whether any plant personnel were exposed to danger.

"During a washing process prior to loading the actual nuclear fuel, a small leak was observed in a pool next to the reactor and was fixed," Salehi said, Iran's IRNA news agency reports. "This leak delayed activities for a few days."

Plant officials have previously admitted that the Stuxnet worm, a sophisticated strain of malware capable of sabotaging industrial plant control systems, had infected the laptops of an unspecified number of workers.

This admitted infection has nothing to do with the months-long delay at Bushehr, according to Salehi. Iran's deputy industry minister, Mohsen Hatam, added: "All (infected) platforms have been scanned, cleaned and sent back to their respective industries."

Stuxnet, which was first widely identified in July, is capable of reinfecting supposedly disinfected systems, so Hatam's assurances that the country has its malware problem under control cuts little ice. The worm is capable of spreading from infected USB sticks or across unsecured networks. Once inside the system it uses the default passwords to command the software. Infections have been recorded in India and Indonesia as well as Iran and Russia.

Last week Iran intelligence officials said the country had arrested an unspecified number of "nuclear spies" over the Stuxnet infection. These arrests remain unconfirmed by independent sources.

One favoured (though disputed) theory is that the worm was developed in Israel and introduced by Russian sub-contractors who worked at Bushehr. Stuxnet has backdoor components and attempts to connect to two (now disconnected) servers. The malware uses two stolen digital certificates and no less than four zero-day Windows flaws.

The sophistication of the worm has provoked widespread speculation that the malware was developed by an intelligence agency and targeted at Iran, the country where infection was first detected. Israel has emerged as the obvious prime suspect in this malfeasance.

Iran claims its nuclear programme is solely for civilian purposes such at electricity generation and scientific research. However other countries, led by the US and Israel, fear the country wants to use the plant to enrich uranium and make nuclear weapons. ®

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