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Monday, November 22, 2010

Stuxnet? Iran's centrifuges temporarily shut down

From AP:
Iran's nuclear program has suffered a recent setback, with major technical problems forcing the temporary shutdown of thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium, diplomats told The Associated Press on Monday.

The diplomats said they had no specifics on the nature of the problem that in recent months led Iranian experts to briefly power down the machines they use for enrichment — a nuclear technology that has both civilian and military uses.

But suspicions focused on the Stuxnet worm, the computer virus thought to be aimed at Iran's nuclear program, which experts last week identified as being calibrated to destroy centrifuges by sending them spinning out of control.

There have been hints that the program is beset by technical problems. Even a brief shutdown of the thousands of enriching machines would be the strongest documentation to date that the program — Iran's nuclear cornerstone and a source of national pride — is in trouble.

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.

WaPo adds:
Iran's nuclear program has experienced serious problems, including unexplained fluctuations in the performance of the thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium, leading to a rare but temporary shutdown, international inspectors are expected to reveal Tuesday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. unit that monitors nuclear programs, will provide no explanation of the problems. But speculation immediately centered on the Stuxnet worm, a computer virus that some researchers say appears to have been designed specifically to target Iran's centrifuge machines so that they spin out of control.

Even before the Stuxnet attack, the Natanz facility that houses the centrifuges had not been operating at full capacity, according to experts and U.S. officials.

Olli Heinonen, a former top IAEA official, said Monday at a meeting sponsored by the Arms Control Association that 3,772 centrifuges at the facility were being fed uranium gas and 5,084 machines were idle. "This indicates that there is a problem," he said.

Heinonen also said that Iran appears to have suffered a setback in its efforts to develop a second-generation centrifuge capable of enriching uranium more quickly. Iran's centrifuges are based on a Pakistani copy of a decades-old Dutch design, and Heinonen said Iran may have trouble obtaining the raw materials - such as high-strength carbon - for an upgrade because of international sanctions.
The Wired article I quoted recently seemed to indicate that Stuxnet was being more subtle than AP's and WaPo's characterization of the code making the centrifuges spin out of control. Wired made it sound like Stuxnet was only trying to reduce the quality of the uranium, but the fact that so many centrifuges are out of commission could mean that this was either an intended or unintended consequence of Stuxnet's code.

(h/t Jacob)