Based on interviews with unnamed IAEA inspectors, AP is claiming that virtually all the centrifuge arrays used in the Iranian uranium enrichment program have been temporarily shut down. The suspicion is that the Israeli Stuxnet attack has caused serious damage not just to Natanz, but to Bushehr as well, which was expected to come online in a month. Look to an Iranian announcement about Bushehr shortly which should either confirm (if it is further delayed) or contradict (if it comes online as scheduled) the accuracy of this report:
A U.N official close to the IAEA said a complete stop in Iran’s centrifuge operation would be unprecedented to his knowledge but declined to discuss specifics. He, like two senior diplomats from IAEA member countries who told the AP of the incident at Natanz, asked for anonymity because the information was confidential.
Previous reports had indicated serious technical problems regarding these matters and that Stuxnet had caused damage, but this is the first report I’ve read which appears to claim that the entire enrichment program has been halted (albeit temporarily).
The article also explained precisely how the worm might disrupt normal function of the centrifuges and damage or destroy them altogether:
Iran’s enrichment program has come under renewed focus with the conclusion of cyber experts and analysts that the Stuxnet worm that infected Iran’s nuclear program was designed to abruptly change the rotational speeds of motors such as ones used in centrifuges. Such sudden changes can crash centrifuges and damage them beyond repair.
No one has claimed to be behind Stuxnet, but some analysts have speculated that it originated in Israel.
The worm “specifically controls frequency converter drives” that normally run between 807 Herz and 1210 Herz, researcher Eric Chien of the computer security company Symantec, said in an e-mail to the AP. “These are subsequently changed to run at 1410Hz, then 2Hz, and then 1064Hz.”
Iran nuclear expert David Albright said it was impossible to say what would cause a disruption strong enough to idle the centrifuges but “Stuxnet would do just that. “It would send (centrifuge) speeds up and then suddenly drop them,” said Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, which has tracked Iran for signs of covert proliferation.
Albright and a colleague, Andrea Stricker, last week released a study applying Chien’s finding to centrifuges. He said the worm appeared capable of pushing centrifuge speeds above their normal speeds, up to 1,410 Herz, or cycles per second, and then suddenly dropping speeds to 2 cycles per second, disrupting their operations and destroying some in the process.
Separately, another official from an IAEA member country suggested the worm could cause further damage to Iran’s nuclear program. The official also asked for anonymity because his information was privileged. He cited a Western intelligence report suggesting that Stuxnet had infected the control system of Iran’s Bushehr reactor and would be activated once the Russian-built reactor goes on-line in a few months.
Stuxnet would interfere with control of “basic parameters” such as temperature and pressure control and neutron flow, that could result in the meltdown of the reactor, raising the specter of a possible explosion, he said.
…Commenting on Stuxnet Monday, Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s former point man on Iran, told a Washington audience that the virus could have infected control systems at Bushehr “or elsewhere.”
“It may cause a lot of havoc,” he said.
It should be noted that the Bushehr plant does not use centrifuge arrays (thanks to the commenter below who corrected my original misimpression on this subject) but that Stuxnet reputedly has also damanged computer and industrial processes there. A engineer well-versed with the Iranian nuclear program wrote explaining how Bushehr works and by implication how Stuxnet could sabotage it with conceivably disastrous results:
The reactor is essentially a nuclear bomb, except that heat is removed quickly and the nuclear reaction proceeds slowly and under control. The heat is removed by passing pressurized water through the reactor that absorbs the heat (if the water is not pressurized, the heat will evaporate the water, the core of the reactor will melt down, and we will have a Chernobyl-type catastrophe).
If all the information and claims above are correct (and it’s possible they aren’t or are only partially true) Stuxnet, from the point of view of Israeli intelligence may be said to be a stunningly successful enterprise, at least in the short-term. But programs like Iran’s when confronted by external sabotage tend to close ranks and rally to the cause. It could be that instead of significantly delaying the Iranian program in the short-term it will spur it to greater, faster growth in the longer term. The danger is for Israel and the U.S. to underestimate the resourcefulness and skills of their Iranian opponents. That’s what cockiness does to you and Israel is full of it (literally).
The problem with Israeli intelligence skullduggery is that it tends to have vast and unintended consequences. They kill a “bad guy” to great celebration only to have him replaced by someone (in the case of Hassan Nasrallah) even more proficient than the victim. They sabotage a nuclear program only to have the technicians devise ever more inventive & secure means of attaining its goals. It could happen.
- Stuxnet could cause Bushehr meltdown (warincontext.org)