The New York Times reports that the Stuxnet worm which was designed to attack Iran’s nuclear enrichment program was a joint US-Israeli operation. One of the crucial elements in developing the plan was being able to test the malware’s ability to disable P-1 centrifuges — the type that Iran employs in cascades of thousands of centrifuges in it Natanz enrichment facility. Israel has row upon row of this type of centrifuge at its clandestine nuclear weapons production facility in Dimona.
The question is: how did Israel come to possess so many P-1 centrifuges? Did Israel obtain the centrifuges from AQ Khan?
The CIA was tracking the AQ Khan network for decades before it eventually shut it down in 2003. Douglas Frantz, co-author of Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking, told NPR: “By the time they finally acted in 2003, an enormous amount of the world’s most dangerous technology had been sold to the world’s most dangerous regimes. And that, in our view, was a policy failure, a policy failure of enormous proportions, really.”
Perhaps the most secretive part of the Stuxnet story centers on how the theory of cyberdestruction was tested on enrichment machines to make sure the malicious software did its intended job.
The account starts in the Netherlands. In the 1970s, the Dutch designed a tall, thin machine for enriching uranium. As is well known, A. Q. Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist working for the Dutch, stole the design and in 1976 fled to Pakistan.
The resulting machine, known as the P-1, for Pakistan’s first-generation centrifuge, helped the country get the bomb. And when Dr. Khan later founded an atomic black market, he illegally sold P-1’s to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.
The P-1 is more than six feet tall. Inside, a rotor of aluminum spins uranium gas to blinding speeds, slowly concentrating the rare part of the uranium that can fuel reactors and bombs.
How and when Israel obtained this kind of first-generation centrifuge remains unclear, whether from Europe, or the Khan network, or by other means. But nuclear experts agree that Dimona came to hold row upon row of spinning centrifuges.
“They’ve long been an important part of the complex,” said Avner Cohen, author of “The Worst-Kept Secret” (2010), a book about the Israeli bomb program, and a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He added that Israeli intelligence had asked retired senior Dimona personnel to help on the Iranian issue, and that some apparently came from the enrichment program.