Stuxnet may have delayed Iran's nuclear programme

A former UN nuclear inspections official has stated he believes that the Stuxnet virus may be partly responsible for the delays to Iran’s nuclear programme.

So far Iran has strongly refuted any suggestions that its nuclear programme has been in any way affected by the worm which attacked its systems in September. However Olli Heinonen, deputy director at the UN’s nuclear watchdog until August, believes that the attack could be at least part of the cause for the delays with Iran’s uranium enrichment project.

According to Heinonen there may be many causes of technical glitches that have reduced the number of functioning centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant in Iran.

“One of the reasons is the basic design of this centrifuge … this is not that solid,” said Heinonen.  “Sure, this could be one of the reasons … There is no evidence that it was, but there has been quite a lot of malfunctioning centrifuges.”

Symantec recently discovered how the virus is able to attack the control systems found in industrial plants, sabotaging by forcing devices to which it is connected to run at very high speeds almost indefinitely, and it appears that it may well have done so in Natanz. 

It is thought that Stuxnet is targeted towards the motors which control centrifuges used to enrich uranium, with an IAEA report showing that 160 centrifuges in Iran’s plant have been shut down in just a couple of months.

The attack could be behind the delay in generating power in the Bushehr plant, which is two months behind schedule, now planned to be operational in January 2011.

While Heinonen is unable to say with any certainty as to whether Stuxnet was designed with the specific target of Iran’s nuclear programme – the global who-dunnit has taken in a wide breadth of credible theories already including the idea that it was developed by China to attack India – he does seem to support the idea that the virus is very well equipped for this particular task.

Heinonen put forth the idea that the “poor workmanship” on the centrifuges themselves, adapted from a smuggled 1970s design, was among the potential reasons for malfunctions. 

“They have some problems but you don’t know what the real reason is for those problems and there may be many reasons,” said Heinonen.