Has Iran’s Nuclear Program Suffered Real Damage From Secret Operations?

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The damage at Natanz
The damage at Natanz. A building that has been completely destroyed will need at least a year to be rebuilt.Credit: HANDOUT/REUTERS

For more than a decade, Iran and Israel have “allegedly” been embroiled in a covert conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, according to “foreign sources.” It’s time to take stock of the fruits of this effort and to examine its effects.

Let’s start with looking at Iran’s nuclear program over the years. It all began more than 50 years ago under the Shah, who felt Iran was big enough to become a nuclear power, perhaps inspired by Israel, given that they asked us for assistance. Eventually a Russian reactor was built on foundations built by the Germans in Bushehr, and it began to supply electricity in 2012.

To this day it remains the most expensive reactor in the world, costing more than $10 billion. It was built in a remote port town (since all the reactor parts had to be shipped there). Presently this reactor provides only about 2 percent of Iran’s electricity output.

This reactor was positioned exactly at the intersection of three tectonic plates, so the area is earthquake prone. Putting it there was a bad decision from any logical standpoint. In 2013 the reactor halted all operation for some months after a quake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale. But this reactor provides Iran with an excuse to enrich uranium, though the agreement with Russia ensures it and two others like it, built since, a regular supply of fuel. Need we add that solar energy generation in Iran’s vast desert expanses have rendered this entire venture gratuitous.

The Iranians claim they created their uranium enrichment for the sake of running the reactor. The plant at Natanz has 5,000 first-generation centrifuges. The knowhow and material for them came from Pakistan, which stole German plans from a plant in Holland.

The Iranian mimic of the Dutch plan is neither efficient or particularly reliable. Glitches abound, and the Iranians had to replace around 100 centrifuges a year. The centrifuges work in groups (164 per group): shutting down a single centrifuge halts the work of an entire group, and the frequency of the shutdowns constrains the efficiency of the entire plant.

Indeed the output of enriched uranium from Natanz has been quite small: less than 1.5 tons of enriched fuel in two years, for which it needed 40 tons of fuel a year! This enriched uranium could have been used as material for nuclear weapons. For approximately two bombs.

If anyone had a doubt as to the Iranians’ real intentions given this date, along came the documents obtained by the Mossad from the archive, only a small portion of which has been published.

Iran had an orderly plan to produced nuclear weapons. The documents name research sites, research groups and the names of those responsible and details about the equipment purchased (through 2003). Iran lied about this, but in the interest of historical accuracy, it isn’t the only country that has lied about this matter – almost all countries have too.

Since 2010, a gradated, slow mission began to damage the Natanz centifuges using a clever virus. The “Stuxnet” viral software code was 10 times longer than most viruses and was highly sophisticated, making it difficult to discover. It only ran on computers monitoring the centrifuges manufactured in Iran. Even then the viruses operated randomly, and did not immediately destroy the centrifuge, but only made it speed up or slow down, thusly exacerbating wear and tear. Nuclear monitors point out they noticed that centrifuges were being replaced rather quickly at Natanz (their cameras were placed at the plant’s entrance). In their estimation, more than 1,000 centrifuges were damaged until the Iranians figured out the cause.

In effect, the plant stopped running for more than two years.

One can only imagine the Iranian frustration until they figured out the origin of the trouble. It certainly slowed Iran down and helped persuade it to sign the nuclear deal. There are those who believe that this was the main aim of the Stuxnet virus.

Meanwhile the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal and Iran no longer fulfills all its obligations under the agreement. The first generation of centrifuges were replaced by more advanced ones (made of lighter, stronger materials). This generation can produce five times more than the older generation could.

The plant that produces and assembles the new centrifuges sits above the facilities where uranium is produced (beneath 2.5 meters of especially strong cement, deep in the earth). This new plant was struck by a strong explosion. Viewed from above it looks like a car bomb detonated close to the building (at its upper left corner) most of which was destroyed. An aerial view shows ruins of centrifuges scattered in the area.

Perhaps this is the place to point out that assembling and balancing centrifuges requires enormous accuracy, working under “clean room” sterile conditions. A building that has been completely destroyed will need at least a year to be rebuilt. All in all the damage done to the Iranian nuclear program, in terms of time, is estimated at about two years.

There is no doubt that these secret operations have halted the Iranian program for a few years – delaying it, but it hasn’t been destroyed. Stay tuned.

Professor (emeritus) Uzi Even of Tel Aviv University was one of the founders of the Dimona reactor and is a former member of Knesset.

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