The spread of nuclear know-how
How key nuclear secrets were leaked and copied all over the world.
In the early 1970s, at a factory in the Dutch town of Almelo, the governments of Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands were perfecting a secret uranium-enrichment technology: the ultracentrifuge.Skip to next paragraph
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The machines were made of precisely crafted tubes of metal that spun at fantastic speeds.
The centrifugal force this spinning created was so great it could physically separate the different isotopes of natural uranium.
Naturally, this technology was housed in a factory that was supposed to be secure.
But in practice the atmosphere at Almelo was relaxed. The centrifuge building housed a snack shop, and workers without full clearance routinely filtered through - including a well-liked Pakistani metallurgist named Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Other workers thought nothing of their repeated sightings of Dr. Khan walking through the centrifuge facility, notebook in hand.
Fast forward to 2004. Khan, who became the father of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, has admitted to peddling nuclear know-how for profit - and the secrets of the centrifuges of Almelo have leaked all over the world.
The characteristics of the machines can be as distinctive as fingerprints. Parts and plans related to centrifuges have proved crucial clues linking Iran, Libya, and Pakistan together in a web of nuclear proliferation.
Their dissemination is particularly dangerous because they can solve the most daunting aspect of building nuclear weapons - acquiring the fissile core.
"There is no secret to making a nuclear bomb," says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The hard part is getting the [fissile] material."
Libya has admitted to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials that it first bought centrifuges and centrifuge parts in 1997. This initial batch - enough for at least 220 machines, according to IAEA documents - was similar in design to the first centrifuge model produced by the British-German-Dutch Urenco consortium.
Beginning in 2000, Libya set its sights on a more advanced centrifuge. This design, dubbed "L-2" in IAEA documents, was itself based on a second- generation Urenco centrifuge that uses super strength maraging steel instead of aluminum for rotors. Libya ordered parts for 10,000 L-2s. These components began to arrive in large quantities in December 2002.
Iran, for its part, has some 920 centrifuges of the less-sophisticated aluminum rotor design, according to the IAEA. It declared ownership of these machines to the IAEA last year.
But further investigation - including interviews with ex-Iranian officials - led international inspectors to suspect that Iran knew more than it was saying about advanced steel rotor centrifuges. This January Iranian officials admitted that they had received blueprints from foreign sources for advanced "P-2" machines.
The Iranians said that they decided they weren't capable of making the finely machined rotors out of steel, and instead had tried to make them from carbon composites. This failed. So they did what any backyard inventor frustrated with a balky whiz-bang might do - they threw the whole thing in the garbage.
According to Iran, after June 2003 "all of the [P-2] centrifuge equipment was moved to the Pars Trash Company in Tehran," says the IAEA's recent Iran report.