Iran’s nuclear programme halted temporarily

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

WASHINGTON - Iran’s nuclear facilities were temporarily suspended this month apparently due to a technical snag caused by a malicious software Stuxtnet that affected many computer networks in the country, The Wall Street Journal reported.

According to diplomats briefed on a report by UN’s nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the brief stoppage of nuclear fuel enrichment process at the recently established Natanz plant was related to the infection of the facility’s control systems by the Stuxnet computer worm.

Officials with knowledge of the nuclear programme said the stoppage has compounded problems Iran is already facing in running and scaling up the centrifuge cascades at the site in central Iran.

The officials said Tehran’s first generation of centrifuges are operating at only 60 percent of their designed capacity. The country has so far been unable to employ more advanced equipment at Natanz, probably because of difficulties it is facing in obtaining high-end raw materials.

“This is clearly showing that they’re having technical problems with their machines,” Olli Heinonen, who served as the IAEA’s top nuclear inspector until August, was quoted as saying.

In June, Iran reported computer attacks on its industrial nuclear installations, including Natanz and the nuclear power reactor in Bushehr.

Computer experts said that the Stuxnet worm had been designed to attack computer operating systems of sophisticated machinery and most of the systems affected by the worm have been in Iran. Speculation has focused on either Israel or the US as the source of the worm, something neither country has confirmed or denied.

On Tuesday, the head of the Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, denied that his country’s nuclear programme had been significantly harmed by the Stuxnet computer worm.

“Fortunately the nuclear Stuxnet virus has faced a dead end,” he told Iran state media.

The IAEA reported that Iran has produced over 3,100 kg of low-enriched uranium at Natanz, approximately enough for two atomic weapons if the material is processed further into weapons grade.

Details of Iran’s temporary halt in enrichment were contained in a nine-page report released Tuesday by the IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano that was prepared ahead of the UN agency’s Board of Governors meeting next week.

Meanwhile, US officials Tuesday said the latest IAEA report shouldn’t reduce the international drive to use financial pressure to force Iran into negotiations to end its nuclear work. They also fear that Iran could be hiding some of its nuclear installations.

“It seems like they’re struggling,” said a senior US official. “But North Korea is an instructive case for Iran: Every time they’ve faced a failure they’ve somehow found a way to work things out.”

Filed under: Science and Technology

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