VIENNA - In an underground chamber near the Iranian city of Natanz, a network of surveillance cameras offers the outside world a rare glimpse into Iran's largest nuclear facility. The cameras were installed by UN inspectors to keep tabs on Iran's nuclear progress, but last year they recorded something unexpected: workers hauling away crate after crate of broken equipment.
In a six-month period between late 2009 and last spring, UN officials watched in amazement as Iran dismantled more than 10 percent of the Natanz plant's 9,000 centrifuge machines used to enrich uranium. Then, just as remarkably, hundreds of new machines arrived at the plant to replace the ones that were lost.RELATED:Iran’s centrifuges again enriching uranium at full speedIntel Report: 'Bushehr could become a new Chernobyl'
The story told by the video footage is a shorthand recounting of the most significant cyber-attack ever on a nuclear installation. Records of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, show Iran struggling to cope with a massive equipment failure just at the time its main uranium enrichment plant was under attack by a computer worm known as Stuxnet, according to Europe-based diplomats familiar with the records.
But the IAEA's files also show a feverish - and apparently successful-
effort by Iranian scientists to contain the damage and replace broken
parts, even while constrained by international sanctions banning Iran
from purchasing nuclear equipment. An IAEA report due for release this
month is expected to show steady or even slightly elevated production
rates at the Natanz enrichment plant over the past year.
"They have been able to quickly replace broken machines," said a Western
diplomat with access to confidential IAEA reports. Despite the
setbacks, "the Iranians appeared to be working hard to maintain a
constant, stable output" of low-enriched uranium, said the official, who
like other diplomats interviewed for this report insisted on anonymity
in discussing the results of the UN watchdog's data-collecting.
The IAEA's findings, combined with new analysis of the Stuxnet worm by
independent experts, offer a mixed portrait of the mysterious
cyber-attack that briefly shut down parts of Iran's nuclear
infrastructure last year. The new reports shed light on the design of
the worm and how it spread through a string of Iranian companies before
invading the control systems of Iran's most sensitive nuclear
But they also put a spotlight on the effectiveness of the attack in
curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. A draft report by Washington-based
nuclear experts concludes that the net impact was relatively minor.
"While it has delayed the Iranian centrifuge program at the Natanz plant
in 2010 and contributed to slowing its expansion, it did not stop it or
even delay the continued buildup of low-enriched uranium," the
Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said in the
draft, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post
The ISIS report acknowledges that the worm may have undercut Iran's
nuclear program in ways that cannot be easily quantified. While
scientists were able to replace the broken centrifuge machines this
time, Iran is believed to have finite supplies of certain kinds of
high-tech metals needed to make the machines, ISIS concluded. In
addition, the worm almost certainly exacted a psychological toll, as
Iran's leaders discovered that their most sensitive nuclear facility had
been penetrated by a computer worm whose designers possessed highly
detailed knowledge of Natanz's centrifuges and how they are
interconnected, said David Albright, a co-author of the report.
"If nothing else, it hit their confidence," said Albright, ISIS's
president, "and it will make them feel more vulnerable in the future."(c) 2011, The Washington Post