A trafficker's secret

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."


AFP/Getty Images/Rizwan Tabassum