Bushehr starts operations amid enrichment delays
IAEA report suggests centrifuge outages, Studnex virus potential cause
Iran’s nuclear reactor in Bushehr started operations last week, according to reports by the national media.
The news comes as a leaked report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reveals that the country’s uranium enrichment programme has been interrupted by technical problems, which experts suggest could be due to the Studnex computer virus.
In spite of this, Iranian’s nuclear chief has meanwhile announced that the enriched fuel will be produced by the end of 2011.
According to AFP a report leaked to the newswire reveals that the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium were not operating at least one day this month.
"On November 16, no cascades were being fed with UF6" or uranium hexafluoride, the nine-page report reads, without offering an explanation for the outages.
Uranium hexafluoride, a toxic gas, is the form of uranium used in the enrichment process.
Experts contacted by AFP say that the Studnex computer virus, which had been suspected of causing delays in the Bushehr plant, could be the cause of the interruption.
It's certainly feasible, because of the kind of technical problems it can cause in the control systems for centrifuges," Mark Hibbs, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the newswire.
"Centrifuges are very sensitive machines and if you disrupt one of them, you can cause a large number of others to crash."
Some observers believe Israel is behind the Studnex virus. But the problems could also have other causes, such as ageing equipment.
"It's very likely that the halt was in connection with efforts to overcome chronic technical problems," said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Stragegic Studies.
"The Stuxnet malware appears to have contributed to these problems, but the P-1 centrifuges have intrinsic problems anyway."
According to the IAEA report, there are 8,426 IR-1 centrifuges currently installed at Natanz, site of the enrichment programme. This is down from 8,856 at the end of August, and only 4,816, just over half of those, are being fed with nuclear material.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (IAEO), has meanwhile brushed aside concerns about the enrichment progamme, saying that production will begin at the end of next year.
"The artificial sample of the fuel was produced earlier, and the production of the real fuel, enriched up to 20 percent, will start in (the Iranian calendar month of) Shahrivar (August 23-September 22, 2011)," IAEO Director Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted by the Tehran Times on Wednesday.
Iran claims its enrichment programme serves peaceful research purposes, while members of the international community, especially the US and Israel, suspect the country is seeking to attain weapons grade material to build a nuclear arsenal.