Iran temporarily halted enrichment in mid-Nov: IAEA

VIENNA - Iran temporarily halted most of its uranium enrichment work earlier this month, a UN nuclear watchdog report said, an unusual move which Western diplomats said they believed was linked to technical problems.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Wed 24 Nov 2010, 1:57 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:18 AM

The confidential report, obtained by Reuters, did not say why or for how long Iran stopped feeding material into all centrifuge machines used to refine uranium to a low level.

It also said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remained concerned about possible activity in Iran to develop a nuclear payload for a missile.

Security experts have said the release of the Stuxnet computer virus could have been a state-backed attack, possibly by Israel or another enemy of Iran, aimed at sabotaging the Islamic Republic’s nuclear enrichment programme.

Any delays in Iran’s enrichment campaign could buy more time for efforts to find a diplomatic solution to its stand-off with six world powers — the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain — over the nature of Tehran’s nuclear work.

Talks are due to resume next month between Tehran and the six powers over Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West suspects is aimed at making weapons but which Iran says is designed to produce electricity.

“This shutdown remains hard to evaluate. Was the Stuxnet worm responsible for these disruptions or were they caused by some other event or problem?” said the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

The United States said the latest IAEA report showed Tehran remained in defiance of international atomic rules.

“It underscores Iran’s continued failure to comply with its international nuclear obligations,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington.

Despite the temporary halt in enrichment, Iran’s total output of low-enriched uranium (LEU) has reached 3.18 tonnes, the report said, suggesting Iran had maintained steady production in recent months.

Experts say that amount could be enough for at least two bombs if refined to a much higher level.

The report also said Iran was now operating more centrifuge units, or cascades, than it did in August.

Virus at a dead end?

Olli Heinonen, who stepped down in August as head of IAEA inspections worldwide and is now at Harvard University, said Iran clearly had been suffering troubles with its centrifuges.

But, citing the output rate and Iran’s efforts to reorganise the work, he said it may be about to overcome the hurdle.

“They are probably on the verge of solving this technical problem,” Heinonen told journalists.

Centrifuges are finely calibrated cylindrical devices that spin at supersonic speed to increase the fissile element in uranium so that it can serve as fuel for nuclear power plants or, if refined to a much higher degree, for atomic bombs.

Iran’s P-1 centrifuges, adapted from a smuggled 1970s European design which is prone to overheating and vibration, have been plagued by breakdowns since Iran rapidly expanded its enrichment programme in 2007-08.

A diplomat close to the IAEA said none of the cascades, which normally comprise 164 centrifuges, at Iran’s Natanz plant were being fed for low-level enrichment when inspectors visited the site on Nov 16.

About a week later, Iran informed the UN agency that 28 cascades were enriching uranium again. Higher-grade enrichment activity continued during the period covered by the report.

The diplomat suggested a technical problem was the likely reason. He said it had happened a few times in the past.

Security experts said last week that new research showed definitively that Stuxnet was tailored to target the kind of equipment used in uranium enrichment.

But the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said Iran’s enrichment work had not stopped and that its enemies had not achieved their aims with Stuxnet.

Iran has previously confirmed the virus had infected staff computers at its long-delayed Bushehr nuclear power plant but had not affected major systems there.

“Fortunately the nuclear Stuxnet virus has faced a dead end,” ISNA news agency quoted Ali Akbar Salehi as saying.

Iran has tentatively agreed to meet a representative of the six powers, for the first time in over a year, but analysts do not expect any breakthroughs soon in the long-running dispute.

Oliver Thraenert, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said Iran’s technical difficulties may have widened the “window of opportunity” for dealing with the issue diplomatically.

“But it doesn’t mean that the Iranian nuclear challenge is going away,” he said.

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