When the piece of malware given the name “Flame” was found last month, initial analysis indicated that it did not share code with Stuxnet and Duqu, two previously discovered programs also directed at Iran and other nations in the Middle East. However, researchers at the Kaspersky Lab have found that a chunk of early Stuxnet code called “resource 207” is also found in Flame, which indicates a connection between the authors of both programs.
An early version of Stuxnet from 2009 included the resource 207 module, which helped spread the virus to new machines via USB drives by exploiting a then-unknown security flaw in the Microsoft Windows operating system. The later incarnation of Stuxnet could accomplish the same task with different sections of code, and resource 207 was discarded. But when Kaspersky Lab researchers began studying an early module of Flame, they found its code bore a strong resemblance to Stuxnet’s resource 207. They believe that Flame was created first (which means it must date back to at least 2009), and its module lent a hand to the early stages of Stuxnet until the younger malware had been developed enough to stand on its own.
In a dank, humid room 45 miles west of Manila is a direct line to the office of the Philippine president. The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant was to be the first nuclear plant in Southeast Asia. That never happened, and the power plant hasn’t generated a single kilowatt-hour since its completion in 1984. Owners sold off the uranium in 1997. In 2011, it was a reborn as a tourist attraction. The phone to the direct line sits on display, never used.
The Bataan plant has proved popular as a tourist destination, getting booked up months in advance. Especially common are Japanese tourists, who are wary about the safety of nuclear power since the Fukushima disaster. In fact, the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters both pushed Bataan out of favor just when prospects for the nuclear power plant were just looking up. “We don’t need to hire nuclear experts but feng shui masters to get rid of the bad luck,” says Mauro Marcelo, a nuclear engineer who works there.
In the future, nuclear clean-up workers may be getting help from some surprising sources. None of these three methods are in widespread use right now, but they show promise:
What’s the Context: The danger of strontium-90 is that it is chemically similar to calcium, and so can be taken up into milk, bones, and other tissues. Nuclear waste and spills can contain significant amounts of strontium; C. moniliferum is especially helpful because it can precipitate strontium but leave calcium alone (calcium is different enough from barium that the bacteria doesn’t crystallize it).
Not So Fast: Scientists don’t yet know how well the algae can withstand radioactivity, which could potentially put a damper on this clean-up method. Now, the scientists would like to find ways of increasing sulphate levels in the environment, which may in turn increase the ability of the algae to crystallize strontium.
Reactor 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, on March 24
What’s the News: A non-peer-reviewed study (pdf) publicized last week by radioactivity-detection expert Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress suggests that nuclear fission reactions continued at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station well after the plant’s operators had allegedly shut down the reactors there. The paper says there may be what are called “localized criticalities” have occurred in the plutonium and uranium left in the reactors—little pockets of fuel that have gone critical, propagating the nuclear chain reaction and generating potentially harmful radiation. The existence of criticalities is controversial: some researchers say there are certainly none; Dalnoki-Veress himself says it’s only a possibility.
What’s the News: Japan has finally called in the robots to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, dispatching this red AKA Monirobo that is equipped with radiation detectors, temperature and humidity sensors, and a 3-D camera.
What’s the Olds:
Not So Fast: It isn’t clear how much work (if any) the AKA Monirobo is accomplishing thus far.
Image: Asahi Shimbun
Update (March 15): Shortly after this post was originally published, the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi facility worsened dramatically: there was an explosion at a third reactor, which may have damaged the containment unit there, along with a new fire. Reports elsewhere now suggests that more radioactive material escaped, but the extent of the risk of further release of radioactivity is not yet clear. The title of the post has been edited to reflect the changing situation. (Original title: “Relax: Fears Of Japan’s Radioactive Leakage Are Overblown”)
A second explosion hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant today and authorities are preparing to pump seawater into a third imperiled reactor. But considering that Friday’s earthquake was seven times more powerful than the maximum limit they were designed to withstand, we’re lucky the situation isn’t much worse. Japan’s scenario is a far cry from Chernobyl: Any radioactive leakage that has occurred is low, and unlikely to affect anyone outside the local area (if that).
Both today’s explosion (in reactor No. 3) and the one on Saturday (reactor No. 1) have the same cause: a breakdown in the cooling system as tsunami waters swamped generators. Specifically, today’s explosion was caused by hydrogen gas, which builds up as the seawater that’s pumped in to cool the reactor also heats up. From video footage, the explosion looks devastating, and while 11 people were injured, the steel and concrete containment shell around the nuclear reactor was not damaged—which is the main reason why authorities say the situation is mostly under control. “There is no massive radioactive leakage,” Cabinet Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told the New York Times. Here’s a rundown on the risks in the leakage that has occurred:
What Is Escaping (and How)?
The root problem is heat: Even though the nuclear chain reaction is safely stopped in all of Japan’s nuclear reactors, that doesn’t stop heat from building up.
The uranium “stopped” the chain reaction. But a number of intermediate radioactive elements are created by the uranium during its fission process, most notably Cesium and Iodine isotopes, i.e. radioactive versions of these elements that will eventually split up into smaller atoms and not be radioactive anymore. Those elements keep decaying and producing heat. Because they are not regenerated any longer from the uranium (the uranium stopped decaying after the moderator rods were put in), they get less and less, and so the core cools down over a matter of days, until those intermediate radioactive elements are used up. [The Energy Collective]
Between murders and leaked documents, there’s disarray and intrigue all around Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program.
Yesterday, two prominent nuclear scientists in Iran were attacked in car bombings.
According to [Iranian new service] Fars, scientists Majid Shahriari and Fereydoun Abbasi were parking their cars in separate locations near the university campus about 7:45 a.m. local time when they were attacked.Witnesses said each car was approached by a group of men on motorcycles, who attached explosives to the vehicles and detonated them seconds later, the news agency reported. Shahriari was killed instantly. Abbasi was wounded. Both men were with their wives, who were also wounded. [Washington Post]
Unsurprisingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quickly pointed the finger of blame at the West and Israel. Both of the targeted scientists are reportedly connected to the Iranian nuclear program, which the government maintains is for the purpose of energy, but the United States and other nations oppose out of fear of an Iranian bomb.
Abbasi-Davani, whose handful of publications on neutron physics are mainly in Iranian journals, is a key figure in Iran’s nuclear programme. He is reported to be a scientist at the country’s defence ministry, and a member of Iran’s revolutionary guards since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was also named as being among “Persons involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities” in the 2007 UN Security Council Resolution 1747, which imposed sanctions on Iran over its refusal to stop enrichment of uranium. [Nature]
It was late September when the world got wind of Stuxnet, the complex piece of malware that appeared to specifically target Iranian nuclear sites. Now, analysis of Stuxnet suggests it was almost perfectly designed to corrupt nuclear centrifuges, according to David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.
On Wednesday, Mr. Albright and a colleague, Andrea Stricker, released a report saying that when the worm ramped up the frequency of the electrical current supplying the centrifuges, they would spin faster and faster. The worm eventually makes the current hit 1,410 Hertz, or cycles per second — just enough, they reported, to send the centrifuges flying apart. In a spooky flourish, Mr. Albright said in the interview, the worm ends the attack with a command to restore the current to the perfect operating frequency for the centrifuges — which, by that time, would presumably be destroyed. [The New York Times]
Computer experts don’t know Stuxnet’s origin for sure, though the Times’ story drops a few cryptic hints of Israeli involvement. And further study of the attack shows that although Stuxnet appears calibrated to disrupt centrifuges, it could be easily adapted to seize the reins of other systems.
The widespread interconnection of corporate networks and use of SCADA systems [supervisory control and data acquisition] means that industrial infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to software attack. Such control systems are used in virtually every industry—food production, vehicle assembly, chemical manufacturing—and are commonly exposed to insecure networks. This leaves them vulnerable to tampering, such as with Stuxnet, as well as intellectual property theft. [Ars Technica]
The British team that described its design in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A isn’t the first to suggest a hopper. But unlike previous designs, this hopper wouldn’t rely on solar power for fuel, but would instead by powered by radioactive isotopes and the plentiful carbon dioxide in Mars’s atmosphere.
The ability to hop from place to place would enable the new explorers to cover more of the Martian landscape, and visit rough terrain that earlier rovers couldn’t handle. The 2004 rover Opportunity is just hitting 15 miles of surface driving after almost seven years on Mars.
Dr Richard Ambrosi [who worked on the project], at the Leicester Space Research Centre, commented: “The improved mobility and range of a hopping vehicle will tell us more about the evolution of Mars and of the Solar System and may answer questions as to whether there was life in the past, whether Mars was wetter in the past and if so where that water went.” [Press Release]
After decades of development, Iran’s first nuclear power plant is close to operational. This week the country’s TV service announced that engineers have begun loading the fuel rods into the core of the Bushehr plant in southern Iran.
The 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant has been under construction since before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. It was first contracted to a company that later became German industrial giant Siemens; more recently work was done with the help of Russia’s state-owned atomic energy company. [Los Angeles Times]
The plant’s 1000-megawatt capacity is comparable to the power put out by many of the nuclear plants scattered across the United States.