Foreign Intel: Is Iran in Danger of Nuclear Meltdown?

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REUTERS / Raheb Homavandi

For those trying to avoid the Apocalypse, here’s the good news: a computer worm that attacked Iran’s main nuclear power plant last year seems to have delayed the Islamic Republic’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. The bad news? That worm could cause a Chernobyl-style meltdown once the plant becomes fully operational.

That’s according to the Associated Press, which yesterday obtained a report by an intelligence agency of “a nation closely monitoring Iran’s nuclear program” that found that because Stuxnet had penetrated the electronic controls at Bushehr nuclear power plant, it could jeopardize safety systems when the plant was fully operational and lead to a meltdown that would “have the force of a small nuclear bomb.”

Terrific.

The Stuxnet computer worm attacked Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant last summer; most experts believe the worm was unleashed by U.S. and Israel in an effort to derail Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

(More on Time.com: See pictures from Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency)

The specter of a Charnobyl-style meltdown at Bushehr as a result of the worm had been raised last week by Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, but he suggested that the danger had passed. According to AP’s anonymous intelligence report, however, such conclusions were premature and based on the “casual assessment” of Russian and Iran scientists at Bushehr.

Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 exploded in 1986, spewing radiation over a large stretch of northern Europe, forcing the migration of hundreds of thousands of people and producing long-term health problems among survivors.

Iran, of course, says Bushehr is safe. But it’s not as if the country has a stellar record when it comes to nuclear transparency.  Only after outside revelations that its enrichment program was temporarily disrupted late last year by the mysterious virus did Iranian officials acknowledge the incident. And more generally, the U.N. has placed the country under sanctions for its failure to be forthcoming about its uranium enrichment facilities (Quick explainer: enriched uranium powers civilian nuclear power plants, but it also can be used in atomic bombs, which is why the global community is suspicious of Iran’s nuclear program).

So how does Stuxnet work? According a a summary in the NYT last month, the worm had two major components:

One was designed to send Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. Another seems right out of the movies: The computer program also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart.

We at NewsFeed are not nuclear safety experts (a la Homer Simpson), but centrifuges spinning wildly out of control without anyone noticing: That doesn’t sound good. No peace-loving citizen wants a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic. But a massive nuclear meltdown in Iran? That’s not a great alternative either. Let’s hope Iran has its best computer geeks working nonstop to make sure Stuxnet doesn’t bring about what it was designed to help avoid: a nuclear disaster.

(More on Time.com: See a list of the world’s worst nuclear disasters)

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