Posts Tagged ‘Uranium’

In a Computer Worm, a Possible Biblical Clue

September 29, 2010
Deep inside the computer worm that some specialists suspect is aimed at slowing Iran’s race for a nuclear weapon lies what could be a fleeting reference to the Book of Esther, the Old Testament tale in which the Jews pre-empt a Persian plot to destroy them.
That use of the word “Myrtus” — which can be read as an allusion to Esther — to name a file inside the code is one of several murky clues that have emerged as computer experts try to trace the origin and purpose of the rogue Stuxnet program, which seeks out a specific kind of command module for industrial equipment.
Not surprisingly, the Israelis are not saying whether Stuxnet has any connection to the secretive cyberwar unit it has built inside Israel’s intelligence service. Nor is the Obama administration, which while talking about cyberdefenses has also rapidly ramped up a broad covert program, inherited from the Bush administration, to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. In interviews in several countries, experts in both cyberwar and nuclear enrichment technology say the Stuxnet mystery may never be solved.
There are many competing explanations for myrtus, which could simply signify myrtle, a plant important to many cultures in the region. But some security experts see the reference as a signature allusion to Esther, a clear warning in a mounting technological and psychological battle as Israel and its allies try to breach Tehran’s most heavily guarded project. Others doubt the Israelis were involved and say the word could have been inserted as deliberate misinformation, to implicate Israel.
“The Iranians are already paranoid about the fact that some of their scientists have defected and several of their secret nuclear sites have been revealed,” one former intelligence official who still works on Iran issues said recently. “Whatever the origin and purpose of Stuxnet, it ramps up the psychological pressure.”
So a calling card in the code could be part of a mind game, or sloppiness or whimsy from the coders.
The malicious code has appeared in many countries, notably China, India, Indonesia and Iran. But there are tantalizing hints that Iran’s nuclear program was the primary target. Officials in both the United States and Israel have made no secret of the fact that undermining the computer systems that control Iran’s huge enrichment plant at Natanz is a high priority. (The Iranians know it, too: They have never let international inspectors into the control room of the plant, the inspectors report, presumably to keep secret what kind of equipment they are using.)
The fact that Stuxnet appears designed to attack a certain type of Siemens industrial control computer, used widely to manage oil pipelines, electrical power grids and many kinds of nuclear plants, may be telling. Just last year officials in Dubai seized a large shipment of those controllers — known as the Simatic S-7 — after Western intelligence agencies warned that the shipment was bound for Iran and would likely be used in its nuclear program.
“What we were told by many sources,” said Olli Heinonen, who retired last month as the head of inspections at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, “was that the Iranian nuclear program was acquiring this kind of equipment.”
Also, starting in the summer of 2009, the Iranians began having tremendous difficulty running their centrifuges, the tall, silvery machines that spin at supersonic speed to enrich uranium — and which can explode spectacularly if they become unstable. In New York last week, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shrugged off suggestions that the country was having trouble keeping its enrichment plants going.
Yet something — perhaps the worm or some other form of sabotage, bad parts or a dearth of skilled technicians — is indeed slowing Iran’s advance.
The reports on Iran show a fairly steady drop in the number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium at the main Natanz plant. After reaching a peak of 4,920 machines in May 2009, the numbers declined to 3,772 centrifuges this past August, the most recent reporting period. That is a decline of 23 percent. (At the same time, production of low-enriched uranium has remained fairly constant, indicating the Iranians have learned how to make better use of fewer working machines.)
Computer experts say the first versions of the worm appeared as early as 2009 and that the sophisticated version contained an internal time stamp from January of this year.
These events add up to a mass of suspicions, not proof. Moreover, the difficulty experts have had in figuring out the origin of Stuxnet points to both the appeal and the danger of computer attacks in a new age of cyberwar.
For intelligence agencies they are an almost irresistible weapon, free of fingerprints. Israel has poured huge resources into Unit 8200, its secretive cyberwar operation, and the United States has built its capacity inside the National Security Agency and inside the military, which just opened a Cyber Command.
But the near impossibility of figuring out where they came from makes deterrence a huge problem — and explains why many have warned against the use of cyberweapons. No country, President Obama was warned even before he took office, is more vulnerable to cyberattack than the United States.
For now, it is hard to determine if the worm has infected centrifuge controllers at Natanz. While the S-7 industrial controller is used widely in Iran, and many other countries, even Siemens says it does not know where it is being used. Alexander Machowetz, a spokesman in Germany for Siemens, said the company did no business with Iran’s nuclear program. “It could be that there is equipment,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we never delivered it to Natanz.”
But Siemens industrial controllers are unregulated commodities that are sold and resold all over the world — the controllers intercepted in Dubai traveled through China, according to officials familiar with the seizure.
Ralph Langner, a German computer security consultant who was the first independent expert to assert that the malware had been “weaponized” and designed to attack the Iranian centrifuge array, argues that the Stuxnet worm could have been brought into the Iranian nuclear complex by Russian contractors.
“It would be an absolute no-brainer to leave an infected USB stick near one of these guys,” he said, “and there would be more than a 50 percent chance of having him pick it up and infect his computer.”
There are many reasons to suspect Israel’s involvement in Stuxnet. Intelligence is the single largest section of its military and the unit devoted to signal, electronic and computer network intelligence, known as Unit 8200, is the largest group within intelligence.
Yossi Melman, who covers intelligence for the newspaper Haaretz and is at work on a book about Israeli intelligence over the past decade, said in a telephone interview that he suspected that Israel was involved.
He noted that Meir Dagan, head of Mossad, had his term extended last year partly because he was said to be involved in important projects. He added that in the past year Israeli estimates of when Iran will have a nuclear weapon had been extended to 2014.
“They seem to know something, that they have more time than originally thought,” he said.
Then there is the allusion to myrtus — which may be telling, or may be a red herring.
Several of the teams of computer security researchers who have been dissecting the software found a text string that suggests that the attackers named their project Myrtus. The guava fruit is part of the Myrtus family, and one of the code modules is identified as Guava.
It was Mr. Langner who first noted that Myrtus is an allusion to the Hebrew word for Esther. The Book of Esther tells the story of a Persian plot against the Jews, who attacked their enemies pre-emptively.
“If you read the Bible you can make a guess,” said Mr. Langner, in a telephone interview from Germany on Wednesday.
Carol Newsom, an Old Testament scholar at Emory University, confirmed the linguistic connection between the plant family and the Old Testament figure, noting that Queen Esther’s original name in Hebrew was Hadassah, which is similar to the Hebrew word for myrtle. Perhaps, she said, “someone was making a learned cross-linguistic wordplay.”
But other Israeli experts said they doubted Israel’s involvement. Shai Blitzblau, the technical director and head of the computer warfare laboratory at Maglan, an Israeli company specializing in information security, said he was “convinced that Israel had nothing to do with Stuxnet.”
“We did a complete simulation of it and we sliced the code to its deepest level,” he said. “We have studied its protocols and functionality. Our two main suspects for this are high-level industrial espionage against Siemens and a kind of academic experiment.”
Mr. Blitzblau noted that the worm hit India, Indonesia and Russia before it hit Iran, though the worm has been found disproportionately in Iranian computers. He also noted that the Stuxnet worm has no code that reports back the results of the infection it creates. Presumably, a good intelligence agency would like to trace its work.

Ethan Bronner contributed reporting from Israel, and William J. Broad from New York.

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Now Sovereign Wealth Fund Temasek invests heavily in Inmet to fund big Panama copper project

With nearly $600 million pledged to investments in two mining companies in two days, Temasek Holdings is making good on its “fairly bullish” attitude toward mining investments.

Author: Dorothy Kosich
Posted: Thursday , 01 Apr 2010

For the second time in two days, state-owned Singapore investment company Temasek Holdings has made a substantial investment in the mining industry, this time in Toronto’s Inmet Mining to the tune of C$500 million (US$493.4 million) in subscription receipts which will be used to fund the massive Cobre Panama copper project.
Last week Temasek said it was seeking mining investments in Africa and Mongolia. By March 30th, the US$123 billion fund agreed to buy US$100 million of convertible debt in the South African platinum miner Platmin Ltd.
On Wednesday Temasek closed another deal, this time for C$500 in subscription receipts that will be used for the development of the US$4.32 billion Cobre Panama project. Ellington Investments, a Temasek subsidiary, has agreed to buy 9.26 million subscription receipts at a price of Cdn$54.0049 each. The closing of the private placement is anticipated by the end of this month.
The receipts can be exchanged for up to 14.16% of Inmet’s common shares.
Meanwhile, Korea’s LS-Nikko holds a 20% stake in the project, while Inmet retains an 80% stake. Temasek has agreed not to hold more than 19.9% of Inmet common shares.
In January Temasek agreed to buy a US$50 million stake in Robert Friedland’s Mongolian coal miner SouthGobi Energy.
Temasek’s latest mining investment is the Mina de Cobre Panama project which-during a 30-year mine life– is expected to yield annual copper production of 254,695 tonnes, average gold production of 89,674 ounces annually, silver production of 1.5 million ounces, and molybdenum production of 3,218 tonnes yearly. Total life of mine production is anticipated to be 7,640,850 tonnes of copper, 2,690,230 ounces of gold, 45,228,358 ounces of silver and 96,537 tonnes of moly.
The Mina de Cobre Panama project has been under consideration since 1968. In September 2008 Inmet acquired joint venture partner Petaquilla Copper and purchased Teck Resources’ share of the project.
In a conference call with analysts Wednesday, Inmet officials released project details which include the mine site, a port site at Punta Ricon, a 300 MW coal-fired power plant, an overhead power line, and a mine pit and a tailings management facility.

Inmet hopes the project will be fully financed by the time a decision is made in September 2011 whether to proceed with Cobra Panama. During a conference call, Inmet officials said they would consider corporate financing, reducing the percentage of Inmet’s ownership in the project, equity and other options.

Global consumption of uranium to quadruple over next 30 years
By: Jonathan Faurie

Published: 26th March 2010

A leading academic predicts that global 
 demand for mined uranium will rise 
 at least fourfold over the next 30 years, driven by rising electricity demand and scaling back on fossil fuel dependence.

Addressing the first day of the Paydirt 2010 Australian Uranium Conference, Professor Barry Brook, who holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide, said that, should the contributing factors be as acute as predicted, the con-
tinuing surge in demand for uranium would be extended by a further 20 years.

“Despite rapid advances in more-efficient Generation 4 reactors that can consume all the waste and depleted uranium from thermal reactors, the continuing growth in these thermal reactors would ensure a steady 
demand for mined uranium that would continue for many decades.”

He added that thermal reactors currently contributed about 380 GW of global electricity 
supplies, or 15% of total electricity production, which was due to grow by at least four times to about 1,5 TW by 2040.

In line with this growth scenario, global ura-
nium consumption would rise from 69 000 t/y 
at present to about 285 000 t/y by 2040.

Brooke pointed out that nuclear power was rapidly approaching “a renaissance, even if it has not yet quite arrived”.

“While China is still building more coal-fired power stations, its recognition of the 
environmental damage they cause has already guaranteed that nuclear power will be a central platform of China’s energy future.

“There are at least 20 of the Generation 3 thermal reactors being built in China right now, and which will begin to come on line in the next two or three years,” said Brooke

He added that China’s electricity production, a key driver of Australia’s uranium indus-
try, was scheduled to reach between 2 TW and 3 TW by 2050, with global needs in the region of 10 TW.

“Considering that total world electricity production currently stands at about 2 TW, you can see just how big a market we are talking about.

“The need for nuclear is going to be driven not only by environmental concerns and the inevitable decline of fossil fuels, but by the rising contribution of electricity for transport and the growth of electricity-consumptive technologies, such as desalination,” said Brooke.

Meanwhile, ASX-listed Resource Star has signed a joint venture agreement with Globe Metals & Mining to start exploration at the Livingstonia uranium project, in Malawi.
Resource Star will sole-fund the exploration, up to feasibility study, and, in turn, will earn staged equity through achieving defined exploration and assessment hurdles.
During phase one, Resource Star could earn a 20% interest in the project by completing a resource estimate and 1 000 m of drilling, while the company could earn 51% interest during phase two by spending $3,25-million on exploration.

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Global consumption of uranium to quadruple over next 30 years

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