International Security Studies

Events

The Black Market in Nuclear Technology

September 24, 2004 // 12:00pm1:30pm

This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's Division of International Studies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the Nonproliferation Forum series.
In December 2003, the British and U.S. governments jointly announced the startling revelation that secret negotiations had yielded a commitment by Libyan leader Mohammar Qaddafi to verifiably relinquish his country's covert weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities. The ensuing disarmament process brought to public light the black market network, organized by Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan, to provide nuclear components to Libya, Iran, and North Korea for their clandestine weapons programs. Libya's WMD disarmament and subsequent efforts to break up the Khan network have been hailed as a nonproliferation success. Yet these cases, according to Albright, amount to a massive failure in the multilateral export control regime and expose the limitations of the current international safeguards system overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In the 1970s, an era of loose export controls, A. Q. Khan began his illicit operations under cover as a businessman dealing in "dual use" technologies – those with both civilian and military application. The Pakistan government was aware of A.Q. Khan's activities, but turned a blind eye because of his pivotal role in that country's own covert nuclear weapons program. China provided essential assistance to Pakistan in the 1980s, including bomb design information that Khan, in turn, sold to Libya. He is also reported to have approached Iraq in autumn 1990, in the immediate wake of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, about the sale of nuclear components. Because the Pakistan government has not made Khan available to U.S. or IAEA officials, a major unresolved question after the Libyan disclosures, is where else this sensitive nuclear technology was transferred beyond the known parties.
The Khan network was particularly adept at finding countries with weak export control laws, such as Dubai, Malaysia and South Africa. Sensitive components, whose sale is monitored by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), were shipped to these countries under false end-user documents and then covertly shipped on to their intended destinations. NSG export control restrictions were successfully circumvented. But the Khan network overreached and that led to its detection. The CIA penetrated a Malaysian company producing centrifuges, which led to the seizure of the German-owned vessel BBC China destined for Libya in October 2003 (an interdiction action undertaken under the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative).
The future priorities are, first, to understand more about the operations of the network: who were the customers and the suppliers? Second, to retrieve the centrifuges and other sensitive technologies illicitly transferred by the network; this includes equipment designs and instructions for assembly. Third, to investigate and prosecute individuals involved in these black market activities, and to gain independent, outside access to A.Q. Khan so that he can be questioned to ascertain the reach of his network. Finally, Albright concluded, the IAEA must be given the tools to detect dual-use items. In addition, national export control laws and intelligence sharing among countries among concerned countries must be strengthened.

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  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies

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