The History of the Gas Centrifuge and Its Role in Nuclear Proliferation | Wilson Center
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The History of the Gas Centrifuge and Its Role in Nuclear Proliferation

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The discovery of A.Q. Khan's extensive nuclear proliferation network based upon gas centrifuge technology used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade has created a crisis of confidence in the non-proliferation regime. While the beginnings of gas-centrifuge experimentation date back to the 1930s, it was only in the 1970s that the technology advanced enough to become commercially viable. Widely considered an unlikely path to nuclear weapons proliferation until the 1990s, gas-centrifuge technology is now seen by some as a central threat to the non-proliferation regime.

Work on the centrifuge method for uranium enrichment began during the Manhattan Project, but according to Houston G. Wood, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia, a number of failures led to the termination of this research vein. Centrifuge work did not resume in the United States until 1955 following important successes in Germany and in the Soviet Union, which relied heavily upon the work of a group of German WWII POWs led by Max Steenbeck.

[Download Houston Woods' PowerPoint presentation.]

Following the release of the Steenbeck group in 1955, one of its leaders, Gernot Zippe, traveled to the United States and in 1958 was awarded an Atomic Energy Commission contract to duplicate what he had done in Russia in support of the AEC's larger centrifuge research program at the University of Virginia.

With the end of this work in 1960, Wood explained that Zippe was presented with a choice: he could advance his centrifuge work in the U.S. on a classified basis, or he could leave the country. Unwilling to contribute to secret weapons-related research, Zippe returned to Germany where he worked for a predecessor of the European uranium enrichment consortium, Urenco.

Unlike Zippe, who chose Urenco as an alternative to weapons research, Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan used his position at Urenco to steal sensitive technical drawings used to aid the Pakistani nuclear weapons program following rival India's ‘peaceful nuclear explosion' in 1974. These materials would later form the foundation of his global proliferation network.

For countries intent upon using gas centrifuges to enrich uranium, expertise such as that derived by Khan based upon Zippe's original research is only part of the equation. Equally important, according to Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright, is the ability to access certain industrial materials without arousing international suspicions. Drawing upon his own experience working with the IAEA in Iraq, Albright explained how Iraq managed to have a German company, H+H Metalform, became a key supplier to Iraq's centrifuge program. According to Albright, only the 1991 Gulf War—not IAEA inspectors, export controls or other traditional non-proliferation mechanisms—brought this hitherto unknown program to light.

The spread of gas centrifuge enrichment technology poses enormous problems for the non-proliferation regime, but according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, the regime does not face a crisis of compliance, but rather a crisis of confidence.

Between 2002 and 2004 the world learned about clandestine centrifuge enrichment programs in Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and also about A.Q. Khan's global proliferation network. The revelation of so many proliferation-related programs in short succession caused many to question the strength of the existing non-proliferation regime. Lewis posits, however, that these seemingly separate programs—all linked by the Khan network—managed to go undetected for so long not because of a systemic failure of the non-proliferation regime, but because until the mid-1990s most Western experts considered centrifuges too complex and too exotic to be used by potential proliferators in the developing world.

By treating the Iraqi, Iranian, North Korean and Libyan centrifuge programs as products of the same failure, and then addressing the underlying problem through, for example, universal adoption of the Non Proliferation Treaty's Additional Protocol which strengthens IAEA safeguards, and a renewed focus by intelligence agencies and the IAEA on undeclared facilities, ebbing confidence in the non-proliferation regime, Lewis suggested, can be restored.