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Friday, February 12, 2010

Iran encountering 'technical setbacks' in push to enrich uranium

The Washington Post reports that despite Thursday's claims to have 20% enriched uranium, Iran is encountering 'technical setbacks' in its enrichment push.
Beneath this rhetoric, U.N. reports over the last year have shown a drop in production at Iran's main uranium enrichment plant, near the city of Natanz. Now a new assessment, based on three years of internal data from U.N. nuclear inspections, suggests that Iran's mechanical woes are deeper than previously known. At least through the end of 2009, the Natanz plant appears to have performed so poorly that sabotage cannot be ruled out as an explanation, according to a draft study by David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). A copy of the report was provided to The Washington Post.

The ISIS study showed that more than half of the Natanz plant's 8,700 uranium-enriching machines, called centrifuges, were idle at the end of last year and that the number of working machines had steadily dropped -- from 5,000 in May to just over 3,900 in November. Moreover, output from the nominally functioning machines was about half of what was expected, said the report, drawing from data gathered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

A separate, forthcoming analysis by the Federation of American Scientists also describes Iran's flagging performance and suggests that continued failures may increase Iran's appetite for a deal with the West. Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the federation's Strategic Security Program, said Iranian leaders appear to have raced into large-scale uranium production for political reasons.

"They are really struggling to reproduce what is literally half-century-old European technology and doing a really bad job of it," Oelrich said.

The findings are in line with assessments by numerous former U.S. and European officials and weapons analysts who say that Iran's centrifuges appear to be breaking down at a faster rate than expected, even after factoring in the notoriously unreliable, 1970s-vintage model the Iranians are using. According to several of the officials, the problems have prompted new thinking about the urgency of the Iranian nuclear threat, although the country has demonstrated a growing technical prowess, such as its expanding missile program.

"Whether Iran has deliberately slowed down or been forced to, either way that stretches out the time," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.


"The IAEA measurements at Natanz are very crude and easily subject to intentional manipulation," said a former U.S. official who has closely monitored Iran's nuclear progress. He predicted that the watchdog agency eventually "will see that Iran is hiding production and is underreporting their success."


As the ISIS study notes, the Natanz plant initially exceeded expectations, producing steadily higher amounts of low-enriched fuel. But sometime in late 2008 or early 2009, the output dropped from about 90 to 70 kilograms per month. Overall production improved slightly after that but struggled to return to 2008 levels, even as Iranian scientists installed more centrifuges, the report said. In late 2009, the 3,900 machines listed as functional were generating half the amount of enriched uranium expected, it said.

Neither Iran nor the U.N. watchdog have officially accounted for the slumping output, and U.S. officials have declined to speculate publicly about the reasons. The ISIS report identifies the likely cause as a combination of poor design and Iran's rush to put complex assemblages of centrifuges into production before working out the bugs. The report cites "daily attrition through breakage," as well as a failure to anticipate the difficulty of operating large numbers of machines simultaneously.


Also, while there is no hard evidence pointing to sabotage, ISIS acknowledges the possibility that Natanz's problems were caused by outside sources. "It is well known that the United States and European intelligence agencies seek to place defective or bugged equipment into Iran's smuggling networks," it said.


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