Iran nuclear machines come to halt due to technical woes

VIENNA: Iran has been experiencing significant technical problems with equipment in its uranium enrichment drive and temporarily shut down some of its centrifuge machines, Western diplomats said on Tuesday.One diplomat said Iran acted after suffering power fluctuations but that it was unclear to what extent the Stuxnet computer virus may have been to blame. Iran is using an old centrifuge model which has been dogged by breakdowns for years.Security experts have said the release of Stuxnet could have been a state-backed attack, possibly from Israel or another foe of Iran, to sabotage the country’s nuclear program.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.

The UN nuclear watchdog was expected later on Tuesday to distribute its latest report on Iran to member states.Iran, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, says its nuclear program is meant to produce electricity but Western leaders suspect is a disguised effort to develop nuclear bombs.“I don’t think you can necessarily blame Stuxnet entirely. There could be some other issues but clearly they have been having some real problems,” the diplomat told Reuters.Another diplomat confirmed Iran had switched off and then restarted centrifuges used to refine uranium but that this had happened also in the past.A third official said many machines had been removed from the centrifuge hall at Iran’s Natanz plant, but it was unknown whether the machines were refining uranium at the time or not.The diplomats could not say how many machines had been turned off or when and for how long.The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said the country’s enrichment work had not stopped and that its adversaries had not achieved their aims with Stuxnet, which he suggested Tehran had discovered some 18 months ago.

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… and the desires and dreams of the enemies have not become true,” ISNA news agency quoted Iranian nuclear program chief Ali Akbar Salehi as saying.Iran has tentatively agreed to meet a representative of the powers, for the first time in over a year, and Salehi said the country would announce news about its nuclear program after talks he expected to take place in about two weeks’ time.But analysts do not expect any immediate breakthroughs in the long-running dispute, which has the potential to set off an arms race in the Middle East and spark in a military conflict.Oliver Thraenert, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said Iran’s technical difficulties may have somewhat 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. “If we look only at the technical problems that they have with their enrichment program I don’t think that it will lead them to be more prepared to talk to us.

”Security experts last week said new research showed definitively that Stuxnet was tailored to target the kind of equipment used in uranium enrichment, hardening impressions that its aim was to sabotage Iran’s nuclear activities.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 a rapid expansion of enrichment in 2007-08.In September, an IAEA report said the number of producing centrifuges had fallen to 3,772 from 3,936 a few months earlier and from nearly 5,000 in May 2009. It did not give a reason.“They have been having some significant problems in terms of power fluctuations with the centrifuges … They have had to shut some down,” the senior Western diplomat said – Arabnews