One of the unsolved mysteries of the A. Q Khan nuclear proliferation network is whether there was another nation that benefited, beyond Iran, North Korea and Libya. Khan, the metallurgist who played a key role in Pakistan's quest for the atomic bomb, acknowledged selling equipment and plans that could be used for nuclear weapons to these three countries, but, by some accounts, he and his associates also referred to a hidden "fourth customer."
Now, Joshua Pollack, an expert on nonproliferation whose work has appeared in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the ArmsControlWonk.com blog, and the Nonproliferation Review, has written an article with a surprising suggestion: the fourth customer might have been Pakistan's bitter rival, nuclear-armed India.
In a piece just published in Playboy, Pollack lays out some evidence that the Khan network's wares--including the key features of centrifuges needed to enrich uranium to higher levels for a weapon--may have found their way to India.
Pollack reports that India's efforts to buy centrifuges in 1997-1999 and again from 2003-2006 offered clues to the source of their technology. The hints were contained in advertisements published in newspapers, and documents which India gave to potential suppliers. According to Pollack, the centrifuge design which India sought is "recognizable to the trained eye" as one that "almost mirrors" a design that Khan stole from a European firm in the 1970s and which he later used to build centrifuges for Pakistan.
A centrifuge spins at extremely high speed to separate out the rare isotope uranium that is necessary to build a bomb. The rotor tubes of the centrifuges used by India are narrower and thicker-walled than the Khan designs, according to Pollack, but "are designed along the same distinctive lines: a single tube of maraging steel with a bellows formed directly upon it, not manufactured as a separate component." The bellows is an accordion-like crimp in the tube that helps it remain intact at super-high velocities and under great stress from vibration. Pollack said India is one of only three countries in the world believed to be using centrifuges of this type at this time, and the other two are already known to be Khan's customers. He also reports that India's centrifuge design has small differences from the Khan type "that seem to make it more susceptible to failure."
Pollack also says that others in Khan's illicit network--including Gerhard Wisser, a German living in South Africa--sold technology to India, with or without Khan's knowledge. Pollack notes a partial admission by Khan, documented in the memoirs of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf: "There is a strong possibility that the Indian enrichment program may also have its roots in the Dubai-based [Khan] network and could be a copy of the Pakistani centrifuge design." Musharraf pardoned Khan in 2004 after Khan publicly confessed his role in setting up the proliferation network.
What might have been Khan's motive for selling nuclear equipment to Pakistan's arch-foe? Pollack argues that Khan was always on a quest for personal glory. He drew large sums of money from the nuclear sales, which helped him to become a prominent benefactor and philanthropist in Pakistan, something of a national hero. Pollack points out how Khan has rationalized his illicit dealings, saying that Iran and Libya probably couldn't master the technology anyway, and that North Korea already had a bomb design and plutonium, so it wouldn't make that much of a difference. India, too, already had a nuclear weapon.
Pollack's piece does not prove that India was buying from the Khan network, but it keeps alive the question of who was the mysterious "fourth customer."
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What's the value of a nuclear warhead today? Not the monetary value, but as a deterrent?
Nuclear explosions are frightfully destructive, and that's the point: to inspire fear, to deter an adversary. Atomic bombs still appeal to some nations and terrorists, making proliferation a constant risk. Fortunately, there are fewer nuclear warheads in the world than during the Cold War; down from about 60,000 to about 22,000 today, most of which remain in the United States and Russia. But the deterrent value of the arsenals isn't what it used to be. Both the U.S. and Russia face new threats -- terrorism, proliferation, economic competition, pandemics -- for which these long-range or strategic nuclear weapons are of little value.
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In remarks on Russian television today, President Dmitri Medvedev has turned up the heat in the long-simmering talks on missile defense. Medvedev voiced impatience with the United States, saying the negotiations are not making progress toward a common approach.
Why now? Medvedev has one eye on the calendar: the Russian parliamentary election is Dec. 4. The ruling United Russia party has been losing steam in the opinion polls and Vladimir Putin has already announced he intends to return to the presidency next year. Voters are yawning. Surely, Medvedev has made the calculation that a toughly-worded reprimand to the United States and NATO will play well.
President Obama has embarked on a phased, limited missile defense in Europe which the United States insists is not aimed at Russia, but rather at Iran. Medvedev said he doesn't believe it, and Russia fears that over the next decade the system could be used to undermine its own strategic nuclear deterrent. Russia has demanded legal guarantees from the United States, but the answer, so far, has been "no." Medvedev complained that Russia faces a "fait accompli" as the U.S. system is built. The Medvedev text is here.
Medvedev announced a series of potential counter-measures to a missile defense system, mostly things that have been floated before, such as new weapons which might penetrate any missile defense or disable it. Medvedev said "these measures will be adequate, effective and low cost." No doubt, they will be. The technical challenges to missile defense -- hitting a bullet with a bullet in outer space -- can be enormous, and have been daunting since the 1980s when President Reagan first dreamed up his Strategic Defense Initiative, the idea of a global shield that he promised would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."
Medvedev's latest message may be motivated by domestic politics and negotiating tactics, but it is also a reminder that even a small missile defense system is going to be a nettlesome sticking point with Moscow. Next year, one hopes, Russia and the United States will find a way to cooperate on missle defense, and move beyond it to deal with the large agenda of unfinished business in nuclear arms control. It is a lot more urgent and important.
Update: A good post on what it all means from Pavel Podvig.
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In the Oct. 17 edition of The New Yorker, there's an exceptionally good piece about the Fukushima nuclear accident by Evan Osnos. Among the many revelations are testimonials from workers who grappled with the crippled nuclear reactors after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Osnos describes their heroic efforts to open vents to exhaust the hydrogen that was building up inside the reactor vessels. One vent was partially opened before the workers had to retreat due to high radiation levels. The hydrogen, which had escaped into the reactor building, later exploded.
It's a nightmare to manage a crisis of such magnitude. Not only was there a nuclear disaster; the country suffered death and destruction from the tsunami. But I was struck by the surreal, reassuring statement made that first evening by the government spokesman: "Let me repeat that there is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak." In fact, this was the second-worst nuclear accident in history, after the Chernobyl disaster of April-May 1986.
There are major differences between the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But in all three cases, such misleading statements were issued at the outset, contributing to deep public mistrust later on. On the morning of the Three Mile Island accident March 28, 1979, the utility, Metropolitan Edison, put out a statement that the plant had been “shut down due to a mechanical malfunction,” saying “there have been no recordings of significant levels of radiation and none are expected outside the plant.” In fact, extremely high levels of radiation had been recorded inside the plant.
Chernobyl, in the closed Soviet system, was even worse. The authorities waited for two days and then issued a statement that revealed almost nothing: "An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, damaging one of the reactors. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. The injured are receiving aid. A government commission has been set up." The Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov said the Kremlin pronouncements on Chernobyl were "couched in terms that might have been used to announce an ordinary fire at a warehouse."
Not surprisingly, in Japan after Fukushima, government credibility plummeted. Osnos found distrust to be "astonishingly pervasive" and notes that a poll in late May showed that more than 80 percent of the population did not believe the government's information about the nuclear crisis. There are all kinds of implications of this mistrust; one of them is that some Japanese are debating whether to obey the government's evacuation plans. The country is still heavily reliant on nuclear energy, too, and public confidence will be sorely tested in the months ahead as decisions are made about whether to bring back on line those reactors idled for stress tests.
Osnos concludes that for all that went wrong before the meltdowns, "the fundamentals of Japan's open society served it well in the aftermath," with elected officials issuing evacuation and safety warnings, parliament launching investigations, and the Japanese press chronicling "a raging national debate about the future." One hopes there will be more thorough and detailed reporting like this article, too, helping document what went wrong, and spreading the word -- before the next nuclear crisis.
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What lies ahead for Russia, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to return as president? For answers, go no further than Dmitri Trenin and his new book, Post-Imperium, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Trenin looks over the cliff 20 years ago -- at the precarious, unknown abyss after the Soviet collapse -- and discovers why Russia did not become the nightmare scenario that many predicted. He helps explain the mindset, circumstances, and outlook of Russia over the last two decades, providing an excellent vantage point to see where Russia is going.
An important new book on biological weapons and nonproliferation is being published this week. Amy E. Smithson’s Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond (Stanford University Press) is a carefully researched and fascinating study of the long struggle by United Nations weapons inspectors to uncover Saddam Hussein’s germ warfare program in the 1990s. Smithson has meticulously reconstructed the UNSCOM missions, using interviews and documents. Her narrative reveals how a group of smart, determined gumshoes eventually were able to piece together the truth about Iraq’s program, and dismantle it, long before the United States went to war. Today’s posting is a short excerpt from the book, by permission. Smithson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
From GERM GAMBITS: THE BIOWEAPONS DILEMMA, IRAQ AND BEYOND, by Amy E. Smithson. (c) 2011 Stanford University. Reproduced by permission of Stanford University Press, www.sup.org.
After Coalition forces ousted the Iraqi army from Kuwait in a four-day ground offensive in late February 1991, the ceasefire conditions included Iraq’s unconditional agreement that the United Nations would remove, render harmless, or destroy its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. This disarmament mandate was directly linked with the lifting of trade sanctions. The UN established the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to implement the disarmament mandate. Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus took the helm of UNSCOM, dispatching his seventh team of inspectors into Iraq in August 1991.
David C. Kelly, a former chief of microbiology in the United Kingdom’s chemical and biological weapons defense facility, led UNSCOM’s first biological inspection. To the task he brought field experience from inspections of dual-use facilities in the Soviet bioweapons program. Kelly became a mainstay of the inner circle that busted Iraq’s bioweapons program, the chief of thirty-seven UNSCOM missions to Iraq. A Welsh biologist who sported wire-rimmed spectacles, Kelly was known for his quiet methods and encyclopedia knowledge of biological weapons. On UNSCOM’s first biological inspection, this unassuming scientist began to demonstrate his knack for getting interviewees to divulge more than they intended.
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The current conventional wisdom about the failed coup in the Soviet Union twenty years ago -- great expectations, followed by disappointment -- neglects the more subtle and important aspects. The anniversary this week is a good opportunity to savor some insightful and complex assessments. Among the best, in my view:
Jonathan Steele's interview with the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev is unusually introspective, and laments his failure to separate himself from the Communist party. Many people have long thought it was his greatest error, and it is refreshing to see him acknowledge it now.
A series by Der Spiegel including an interview with Gorbachev. In discussing the coup, Gorbachev admits he should not have left Moscow for vacation in the days before the hardliners moved against him. "I had become exhausted after all those years," he said. "I was tired and at my limits. But I shouldn't have gone away. It was a mistake."
Masha Lipman's terrific essay in The Washington Post. Lipman points to the bargain that Russians have made with the Kremlin, what she has called a non-participation pact. Russians have won personal freedom, and enjoy it, while apathetic and passive about public politics, in which competition has ceased to exist. This nuanced description of today's Russia points out that not all was lost. The public space may be closed, but the private space is free. That's not the Soviet Union any longer.
Leon Aron's piece in The Post is based on extensive discussions with people involved in building civil society, and he concludes there's still hope, that there's a solid foundation being built in social movements that will prove a counter-point to the efforts from above to suck all the air out of civil society.
Neil Buckley has an enlightening survey in The Financial Times [behind paywall] that looks at what happened to all the former Soviet republics, chiefly focusing on economics and political freedom. This wider lens is very useful. Estonia and Uzbekistan were once in the same country, and although differences existed then, too, look at the distance between them now.
I've already had my say on this topic, in FP, here.
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In 2008, a congressional commission warned of the threat that terrorists could acquire biological weapons. The technical obstacles would be large, probably beyond the capability of any existing terrorist group, the commission said in its report, "A World At Risk." But terrorists could recruit biologists. "In other words, given the high level of know-how needed to use disease as a weapon to cause mass casualties, the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists."
A fresh examination of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan offers some insights into just how difficult it might be to use pathogens for terrorism. The Center for a New American Security has published a case study on the 1990s quest for biological and chemical weapons by the group. The report shows how cult leaders struggled to create a biological weapon and failed, and only then turned to a chemical weapon, which they managed to create, launching a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995 which killed 13 people and injured many scores. The sarin attack--and reports that Aum experimented with biological substances--shocked the world, and is one of the events, along with the 2001 anthrax letters, which ramped up attention and public spending to combat biological terrorism. Billions of dollars have been spent in the last decade to defend and protect against a possible attack.
The new study, led by former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, chairman of the board of the think tank, is based on prison interviews with some but not all of the Aum members. While the Japanese police investigations focused on developing court evidence about the sarin attacks, Danzig and his team sought to understand Aum as a terrorist organization and the choices they made about biological and chemical attacks. One thing they discovered was that Aum turned to chemicals because they were more accessible and easier than biological methods for mass killing.
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David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.