Report Suggests Problems With Iran’s Nuclear Efforthttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/
Atomic inspectors reported Tuesday that Iran mysteriously stopped feeding uranium into thousands of centrifuges at its main enrichment plant this month, and independent experts suggested that the computer worm suspected of being aimed at Iran’s nuclear program had caused the spinning machines to break down.
Iran vehemently denied that assertion, and the experts said they had no proof that the unexplained shutdown resulted from the so-called Stuxnet worm — a malicious program detected this year on computers, primarily in Iran but also in India, Indonesia and other countries.
Cyberattackers “tried to infiltrate our country’s nuclear sites” beginning a year ago, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the country’s atomic program, told an Iranian news agency on Tuesday. But he added that “the country’s young experts stopped the virus exactly at those points that enemies intended to infiltrate.”
Recently, Western experts dissecting the computer worm reported that it was precisely fabricated in a way that could send nuclear centrifuges wildly out of control.
The report on Tuesday from the International Atomic Energy Agency said that its inspectors, when visiting the sprawling main enrichment plant at Natanz, in the Iranian desert, on Nov. 16, found that engineers had stopped feeding uranium into the long rows of centrifuges. Six days later, Iran said it had restarted the process.
The report alluded to another sign of possible trouble with the machines. The agency’s inspectors said Iran had assigned 4,816 centrifuges to the process of enrichment at its main plant — 1,044 more than they identified nearly three months ago and close to last year’s high of 4,920 machines. But the figures they provided showed that production efficiency had decreased.
Despite more than 1,000 additional machines, Iran was able to add only 837 pounds of enriched uranium to the overall supply produced at the main plant. That represents an increase of 14 percent. In the previous reporting period, the inspectors described an increase of 829 pounds, or a rise of 15 percent.
In other words, the plant’s output had remained roughly the same despite Iran’s putting many more resources into the job.
“The efficiency is down,” said a European nuclear expert familiar with the report of the atomic inspectors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said in an interview that the new disclosures made incapacitation from the Stuxnet worm “sound more credible.”
American officials have not claimed responsibility for the worm, but they do say the Obama administration has stepped up a broad covert program, inherited from the Bush administration, to undermine Iran’s nuclear program.
Starting in 2006, the United Nations Security Council has repeatedly called on Iran to halt its rush for uranium enrichment and has punished the nation with four rounds of sanctions for its refusal. Iran insists that its nuclear work is peaceful, while the West fears it has built enrichment factories and is enriching uranium to make fuel for atomic bombs.
The report also said that Tehran, extending a rebuff that began more than two years ago, had once again refused to answer questions about possible military work by its nuclear program.
The inspectors said the agency had provided Iran in late October with a list of outstanding questions about documents and other material that appeared to be studies involving nuclear weapons, which Iran has repeatedly dismissed as forgeries. The questions centered on safety arrangements, project management related to nuclear explosives, “details of the manufacture of components for high explosives initiation systems” and experiments involving subatomic particles that can act as nuclear triggers.
The questions to Iranian officials, according to the report, stressed resolving “all of the issues which have given rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions.”The report added that the atomic agency “remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities,” including “development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”