Reporting from Beirut — Iran's atomic energy chief said that a delay in the launch of the nation's first nuclear power plant was not caused by a powerful computer virus that has crippled data management systems around the world — but his explanation may not have reassured Persian Gulf residents.
Ali Akbar Salehi blamed a leak in the pool now holding the fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear power plant.
"A small leak was observed in a pool next to the reactor and was curbed," he said in comments over the weekend that were reported Monday by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. "This leak caused the activities to be delayed for a few days. The leak has been fixed and the core of the reactor is now working properly."
Many Western countries and Israel challenge Iran's insistence that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Few believe Iran could use the Bushehr plant to advance its alleged effort to obtain weapons capability, but Tehran hails the plant as proof it can advance its nuclear program despite sanctions and Western opposition.
The West and Israel's determination to slow Iran's nuclear ambitions fueled speculation that the so-called Stuxnet virus, which attacks Siemens industrial equipment such as that used at Bushehr, caused the delay announced last week.
But Salehi said the virus infected only the Bushehr staff's laptop computers and not the central system at the plant. "This incident has nothing to do with this computer virus," he said.
Over the weekend, Iran's intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, told the semiofficial Mehr news agency that a number of "nuclear spies" had been arrested. He did not provide details.
News of a leak may cause further concerns about the possibility of an accident at the plant, which is adjacent to the Persian Gulf coast. The Russian-made fuel rods for the reactor are currently in a pool in preparation for inserting them into the reactor core.
Delayed for years by a series of disagreements with Russia, which is building the plant, Bushehr was supposed to begin producing electricity by September and be connected to the country's power grid by the end of the year. Iranian officials now say the 163 fuel rods will be placed into the reactor core by late December and the 1,000-megawatt plant will begin providing about 3% of Iran's electricity starting in January.