Amidst the Middle East’s spreading uprisings from Jordan to Yemen to Libya and Bahrain, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report due out this month is expected to show that Iran’s uranium enrichment plant in Natanz has maintained steady or even slightly elevated production enrichment rates over the past year.
This, even as the Stuxnet computer virus is thought to have knocked out about 1,000 centrifuges (machines used to refine uranium) out of the 9,000 used at Iran’s Natanz plant in late 2009 and early 2010. The Stuxnet worm, which analysts have called the “malware of the century” because of its ability to damage sensitive control systems, is believed to have originated either in Israel or the United States as part of a possible new U.S. policy of “covert sabotage” against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Satellite image of the Natanz enrichment facility before the underground buildings were concealed.
An Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) report out Tuesday confirms the IAEA’s expected findings. “While it [Stuxnet] 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,” ISIS discovered. Indeed, IAEA surveillance cameras in Natanz captured images in 2009 and 2010 of Iran dismantling more than 10 percent of Natanz’s centrifuge machines, and then just as easily replacing them. The ISIS report did acknowledge, however, that sanctions against Iran may make it harder for scientists to replace broken centrifuge machines in the event of another attack.
While the Middle East’s uprisings are taking the media’s center stage, it is important to remember that Iran continues to enrich uranium in its quest to acquire nuclear capabilities. Despite last year’s setbacks, experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium for one or two bombs if refined much further.