The UN atomic agency has described “rapid” progress by Iran in developing its uranium enrichment facilities, just weeks after a report suggested the Stuxnet worm that first hit the country in 2009 had increased the country’s nuclear strength.
In a report obtained by The Associated Press, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said as many as 700 new and more sophisticated centrifuges had been installed since the attack, increasing Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium by eight per cent to nearly ten tons in the last three months alone.
The progress was not limited to centrifuges. Tehran had also “advanced” in building a plutonium-producing reactor in Arak, central Iran, capable of producing “several bombs a year,” the report said.
Stuxnet, a computer worm designed to cause the centrifuges that separate isotopes in a reactor to spin at dangerously high speeds, is believed to have infected the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz in 2009 and 2010.
It was discovered by the Iranians in 2010, and is alleged to have originated in the US or Israel.
A study published in the Royal United Services Institute journal (RUSI) earlier this month and based on IAEA data claimed the worm had exposed vulnerabilities in Iranian enrichment facilities that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, and that production actually went up after it was discovered.
The RUSI report also said uranium enriched to a higher concentration was also likely to be produced in greater quantities by Iran, a factor confirmed as a possibility in the IAEA’s latest report with the installation of powerful new centrifuges.
The 700 IR-2m centrifuges are of particular concern to those worried Iran may want to make nuclear arms, because they are believed to be able to enrich two to five times faster than Tehran’s old machines.
Dr Thomas Rid, Reader in War Studies at King’s College, London, told the Telegraph that Stuxnet had given Iran a “major incentive” to review its enrichment programe.
He said: “Stuxnet was a psychological operation, and the goal was to essentially make Iranian engineers think they [were] incompetent.
“By finding out they were attacked they had a major incentive to go back to drawing board and look at the vulnerability of their system.
“If you think you’re the problem you’re likely to give up, but if you think it’s the software you can fix it”.
Iran’s nuclear spokesman Fereidoun Abbasi had already confirmed earlier this year that more than 3,000 new high-tech centrifuges would phase out its older-generation enriching machines at Natanz.
Iran denies that either its enrichment program or the reactor will be used to make nuclear arms. Most international concern has focused on its enrichment program at Natanz, because it is further advanced than the Arak reactor and already has the capacity to enrich to weapons-grade uranium.
Elsewhere in the report, the IAEA inspectors said they have found evidence that Tehran routinely attempts to flout the sanctions applied against Iran over its nuclear program, which Western powers and their allies suspect is aimed at producing weapons but the Iranians say is for peaceful electricity generation.