'Iranian nuclear facility recovered quickly from Stuxnet'

IAEA report due for release expected to show steady or even slightly elevated production rates at the Natanz enrichment plant over past year.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
February 16, 2011 07:31
3 minute read.
Nuclear Power plant [illustrative]

Nuclear Power plant 311 AP. (photo credit: AP [illustrative])

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.

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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 installations.

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


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