YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Sense of Urgency at U.N. Over Nuclear Trade

Its watchdog agency is developing new ways to thwart a black market in weapons technology. The U.S. pushes to give monitors a larger role.

June 26, 2005|Doug Frantz and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

VIENNA — Concerned that efforts to halt nuclear proliferation have proved inadequate, the international community is developing new strategies to fight the illicit spread of atomic weapons technology by private smuggling networks.

Based on lessons from the investigation of the global black market in nuclear technology headed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Bush administration is pushing for a larger role for the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency. It is also lobbying other nations to beef up export controls and is seeking to expand international cooperation on impeding nuclear contraband.

The Khan network began to unravel after an intelligence tip led to the seizure of a shipload of nuclear equipment bound for Libya in October 2003. Investigators later found evidence that the network had sold designs and material for a complete enrichment plant and atomic warhead to Libya as well as nuclear technology to Iran.

The two countries operated ambitious clandestine nuclear programs for many years without detection through international safeguards and export controls.

Along with improving safeguards and monitoring, top counter-proliferation officials are focused on establishing new measures to combat what they warn is the increasing threat of nuclear terrorism.

The Khan network demonstrated for the first time that a country can bypass long-term investments in research and international red tape by secretly purchasing proven nuclear technology and weapons designs from businessmen and rogue government officials.

Robert Joseph, the new undersecretary of State for arms control, said in Washington that the major elements of the Khan network have been "put out of business."

Khan is under house arrest in Pakistan and several other people suspected of involvement in his smuggling ring are in jail in other countries.

But Joseph said the U.S. is now pursuing other networks that traffic in nuclear technology, though he said none is believed to be as extensive as the one-stop shopping offered by the Khan ring.

Under prodding from the Bush administration this month, the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency set up a committee to study ways to strengthen its system of preventing the illicit spread of nuclear weapons technology.

"It is time to revisit the whole safeguards system to see whether it is still effective to meet emerging challenges," Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, told the organization's board in Vienna after it approved the committee.

Topics under consideration include efforts to encourage more nations to share intelligence and other information with the IAEA and giving the agency the authority to gather its own data on a wider range of exports with potential nuclear uses.

The committee will spend the next two years studying these issues before reporting to the IAEA board, which will determine whether to expand the agency's authority.

The IAEA began revamping its safeguards and monitoring systems after the reach of Khan's trafficking network was discovered. A major focus for the agency is expanding its ability to collect and analyze public information and coordinate intelligence received from the U.S. and other countries.

The agency is spending $1 million a year buying satellite images for a new six-person analysis unit. In addition, it set up a system late last year to gather information about which nations are trying to buy technology that could be used in a nuclear program.

"We need to get all the support possible from member states in terms of information sharing, particularly related to procurement activities," said Mark Gwozdecky, the agency's chief spokesman.

The U.S. has regularly shared intelligence and satellite imagery with the agency, but IAEA officials said cooperation cooled in 2003 after ElBaradei contradicted Bush administration statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and later the agency refused to recommend referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council after the discovery of its hidden nuclear facilities.

Relations have improved in recent weeks and the U.S. approved granting ElBaradei a third term as director general this month.

The IAEA is not an enforcement agency and it does not have investigative or law enforcement powers. It depends on voluntary cooperation from countries that agree to strict monitoring of their nuclear facilities in exchange for receiving nuclear technology for civilian uses.

An additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty expanded the agency's ability to conduct inspections at facilities suspected of involvement in nuclear activities, but not all countries have ratified the agreement.

In the U.S., the Senate approved the additional protocol in March 2004. A State Department official said the administration hoped that Congress would approve legislation implementing the requirements of the protocol this summer.

Los Angeles Times Articles