Nuclear Ring Was More Advanced Than Thought, U.N. Says

The ring led by Abdul Qadeer Khan had advanced weapons designs and electronic distribution.
The ring led by Abdul Qadeer Khan had advanced weapons designs and electronic distribution. (Associated Press)
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By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008

The nuclear smuggling ring headed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan possessed a broader range of secret nuclear designs than was previously known and shared them electronically among members of the network, a U.N. watchdog group said yesterday.

A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency also acknowledged large gaps in investigators' understanding of the smuggling ring, raising concerns that Khan's nuclear black market may have had additional customers whose identities remain unknown.

"Much of the sensitive information coming from the network existed in electronic form, enabling easier use and dissemination," the Vienna-based agency stated in an internal report, copies of which were obtained by several news outlets and nonprofit groups. Among the key documents, the report said, were instructions for making enriched uranium, and "more disturbingly, information related to nuclear weapons design." U.S. and U.N. officials have previously confirmed that blueprints for at least two types of nuclear weapons were found on computers owned by Swiss businessmen associated with Khan.

Yesterday's report summarized the IAEA's five-year investigation into Libya's former weapons program, which the country's leader officially renounced in 2003. Libya acknowledged being a longtime customer of Khan's, and it voluntarily turned over evidence, including hundreds of documents, that described the country's business dealings with the Pakistani scientist.

U.S. and IAEA officials say Khan and his partners sold nuclear technology to Libya, North Korea and Iran over nearly 20 years. Libya is believed to have been the biggest customer, having purchased or ordered parts for thousands of centrifuges used to make enriched uranium, as well as bomb designs.

The IAEA report officially gave Libya a clean bill of health, saying that its renunciation of nuclear weapons technology appeared genuine. But it said the process of documenting Libya's nuclear history had turned up troubling new findings about the sophistication of Khan's black-market empire.

The IAEA discovered, for example, that the smuggling ring possessed multiple designs covering nearly every aspect of nuclear weapons development, from uranium processing to "casting and machining and the testing of nuclear weapons components," the agency's report said. Some of the blueprints reflected modern designs that were more advanced than similar drawings Khan is known to shared with Iran, the report stated.

Because many of the documents were digitized, they could be easily distributed. "A substantial amount of sensitive information related to the fabrication of nuclear weapons was available to members of the network," the report said.

The IAEA said it was unable to determine the origin of some of the nuclear material found in Libya. The acknowledgment underscored concerns, long held among nuclear weapons experts, that parts of the network may continue to operate undetected.

"It is naive to think that somehow these guys aren't still doing business," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation. "These networks lay around like a loaded gun for anyone to use."

Khan apologized for his role in the nuclear smuggling ring in 2004, in a statement broadcast on Pakistani television. He has remained under house arrest since then but has not been charged with crimes or made available to U.S. or U.N. officials for questioning.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company