Will Computer Virus Stuxnet Sow Not Only Destruction, But Death?

Last week, in the Nation, Eric Alterman hailed Stuxnet, the computer virus that struck Iran’s Russian-built reactor at Bushehr.

Now that a “number of technological challenges and difficulties” have beset Iran’s program, Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, explains, Iran’s nuclear timetable has been “postponed.” This development ought to be a cause for joy among all people outside the Iranian leadership’s [foot-in-mouth alert -- RW] anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying circles. A military attack, whether American or Israeli, might have postponed the timetable as well, but at a horrific cost in human and strategic terms. . . . The Stuxnet worm has helped to save the world from the horrific consequences [of Iran developing nuclear weapons and attacking Israel -- RW].

Fellow Nation writer Robert Dreyfuss responded:

. . . make no mistake, unleashing a computer worm against a country whose leaders have committed no aggressive act against either the United States or Iran’s neighbors is an act of war

But is Stuxnet the neat, clean computer-killing machine that does no harm to humans — sort of the opposite of a neutron bomb? Dreyfuss again:

. . . a worm—once created—can take on a life of its own. It can infect unintended locations, as Stuxnet already has, and even spread uncontrollably. And it can be copied and engineered by others, for other purposes. It’s like biological warfare: once uncorked, there’s no putting the germs back in the bottle.

Last week we wrote about a Reuters article in which Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, was quoted

“This virus, which is very toxic, very dangerous, could have very serious implications,” he said, describing the virus’s impact as being like explosive mines.

“These ‘mines’ could lead to a new Chernobyl,” he said, referring to the 1986 nuclear accident at a plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.

Because of the role Russia played in constructing Bushehr, Rogozin was just fear-mongering to get the West to back off, right? Uh, maybe not. Yesterday the Associated Press reported that, according to “a foreign intelligence report,” with

. . . control systems disabled by the virus, the reactor would have the force of a “small nuclear bomb,” . . . “The minimum possible damage would be a meltdown of the reactor. . . . However, external damage and massive environmental destruction could also occur … similar to the Chernobyl disaster.”

But then the AP quotes German cybersecurity expert Ralph Langner, “who has led research into Stuxnet’s effects on the Siemens equipment running Iran’s nuclear programs.”

“Bottom line: A thermonuclear explosion cannot be triggered by something like Stuxnet.”

Whatever the case — warning: dueling clichés ahead — it’s still uncharted waters and the West is playing with fire.