Stuxnet may have destroyed 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz

Malicious computer virus accelerated, wrecked motors and may have decommissioned uranium enrichment centrifuges, think tank concludes.

By
December 24, 2010 06:20
2 minute read.
Uranium centrifuges.

Uranium 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The Stuxnet virus that has infected Iran’s nuclear installations may have been behind the decommissioning of 1,000 centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility earlier this year, according to a new analysis of the malicious software.

Prepared by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, the paper raised the possibility that the reported breakage of 1,000 centrifuges was caused by the virus.

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According to the paper, the timing of the removal of 1,000 centrifuges was consistent with a statement made last month by Ali Akbar Salehi, then-head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and recently appointed as the country’s foreign minister, who confirmed in an interview: “One year and several months ago, Westerners sent a virus to [our] country’s nuclear sites.”

There are currently approximately 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges installed inside the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, according to the report.

Last week, The Jerusalem Post interviewed Ralph Langer, a top German computer consultant who was one of the first experts to analyze Stuxnet’s code. It was possible the worm had set back Iran’s nuclear program by two years, Langer said.

Widespread speculation has named the IDF’s Military Intelligence Unit 8200, known for its advanced signal intelligence capabilities, as the possible creator of the software, or perhaps the United States. Langer said last week that in his opinion at least two countries were behind Stuxnet.

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Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, said that Iran had suspended work at its nuclear field-production facilities. While it did not specify a reason, Stuxnet was assessed to be one of the likely culprits.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told the Post that during a study of the Stuxnet code, he discovered that the virus caused the engines in Iran’s IR-1 centrifuges to increase and decrease their speed. The report cited an unnamed government official who claimed that Iran usually ran its motors at 1,007 cycles per second to prevent damage, while Stuxnet seemed to increase the motor speed to 1,064 cycles per second.

“If you start changing the speed, there are vibrations and they become so severe that it can break the motor,” Albright said. “If it is true that it is attacking the IR-1, then it is changing the speed to attack the motor.”

Albright said that the number of centrifuges damaged – 1,000 – also appeared to indicate that Stuxnet – if it caused the breakage – was meant to be subtle and work slowly by causing small amounts of damage to the systems that would not make the Iranians suspect that something foreign – like malware – had been infiltrated into their computers. “It could be that Stuxnet was meant to be subtle to disrupt and break more and have less enriched uranium produced,” he said.

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