The latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano on Iran’s nuclear program has been leaked yesterday and has prompted some interesting analyses. First, according to the report, on 16 November, 2010 when IAEA inspectors had apparently been visiting the site, no cascades of centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) were being fed with uranium hexafluoride (UF6). However, on 22 November, Iran informed the agency that 28 cascades were being fed with UF6. David Albright, Andrea Stricker and Christina Walrond at the Washington, DC-based non-governmental Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) now speculate that the shutdown of all centrifuges might be due to the (another?) cyber attack by the Stuxnet worm. There were hasty disclaimers by Iranian officials as regards potential damage caused by the worm. Another possible, albeit unlikely, reason for shutting down the centrifuges might be the simple fact that 16 November 2010 happened to be the most significant holiday in the Muslim world, Eid-e Qorban.

Another seemingly strange issue in Amano’s report is Iran’s revision of the Fordow (near Qom) FEP design which now also contains an R&D section. The previously planned number of 16 cascades of centrifuges has now been reduced to 12. Albright et al. mention a reduction by one third but it is actually only 25%. So far, no centrifuges have been installed at Fordow. The plant has always been considered by Iran for contingency purposes in case the FEP at Natanz would have been destroyed by foreign forces. Iran had announced in September last year that it will commence enriching uranium at Fordow after another 18 months. One may therefore expect the plant being operational in the first quarter of 2011. Currently, war scenarios are rather unlikely. Given the reasonable assumption that Iran’s nuclear program has in fact been hit by Stuxnet studying the performance of new domestic centrifuges (IR-5) would actually make sense.

ISIS suggests, however, that, according to the discovery of the covert plant by Western intelligence in summer last year, “Iran would downgrade the role of the Fordow plant as a centrifuge plant.” The notion is probably meant to suggest to readers that further clandestine sites so far unknown to the IAEA are being built right now. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had announced in November last year another ten enrichment sites.

The graphs provided in ISIS’ analysis indicate that, after a 17 months backlash since June 2009, centrifuges seem to spin again with increasing amounts of fed UF6 and low-enriched uranium at the FEP at Natanz.

Last modified November 24, 2010.

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