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Details told of Libya's nuclear bid

A U.N. watchdog agency's report finds the abandoned effort relied on documents put in electronic form.

September 13, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — A leaked report by a U.N. agency reveals fresh details about Libya's now-abandoned attempts to obtain nuclear weapons and an underground network of scientists who peddled atomic secrets for cash.

Before deciding to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, Libya had tapped into a sophisticated black-market network that included Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, says a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, prepared for delivery Friday to members of its governing board.

Though Libya was far from obtaining nuclear weapons, a probe into its program showed how easily nuclear secrets could be passed around. Most of the sensitive documents for enriching nuclear material and designing weapons were being put into electronic form, allowing for e-mailing or for transportation on memory sticks, said the report by the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency.

The report, prepared for a Sept. 22 meeting of the agency's board of governors, reveals few major surprises about Libya's quest to obtain nuclear weapons. But it fills in some blanks.

"What the IAEA report shows is that illicit nuclear trade has been around for a long time," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank that posted a copy of the report on its website. "It shows that the illicit nuclear trade has been key to the progression of many secret nuclear weapons programs."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Libya this month to meet with the country's longtime leader, Moammar Kadafi. His nation was under heavy U.S. sanctions until it decided in late 2003 to renounce support for militant groups, abandon its nuclear program and come clean on the details of its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

The IAEA report makes it clear that although Libya had bought tons of uranium and some advanced equipment, it had been unable to start enriching the material.

"The Libyans didn't seem very competent at this," said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. "They weren't able to even get the centrifuges that they bought working."

According to the report, Khan offered in 1984 to sell the Libyans high-speed centrifuges to produce enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material in a nuclear bomb. The Libyans decided that they didn't have the human or financial resources to make the deal.

But Libya called Khan's network back five years later and cut a deal in 1991. The equipment languished in a warehouse in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, because of a U.N. Security Council embargo imposed on Libya the next year. But by 1997, Libya had managed to receive 20 pre-assembled centrifuges and parts for 200 more. In 2002, it began taking delivery of about 10,000 more-advanced centrifuges.

About 3,000 centrifuges refining uranium continuously for one year can produce enough material for one nuclear bomb, experts say. But Libya never even managed to introduce any uranium into the machines, the IAEA has concluded.

Albright said Khan's network was poised to help Libya with on-the-ground expertise when Kadafi finally abandoned the program.

Questions remain about Libya's program. Inspectors analyzing microfiches found designs for building and disassembling nuclear fuel rods and recovering plutonium from spent fuel rods, which is one way of making a nuclear bomb.

Libya has not been able to flesh out details about how or where it obtained the microfiches. Libyan officials could only finger an intermediary who sold them in the 1980s.

The IAEA report also said the agency has not been able to figure out the origins of 4,800 pounds of uranium hexafluoride, a compound used in the production of fissile material for a nuclear bomb, that Libya received in 2001 and 2002.

And the IAEA warned that "much of the sensitive information coming from the network existed in the electronic form," which could make it hard for arms control inspectors to stop nuclear proliferation.

"Once it's electronic, you never feel confident that you've gotten it all back," Albright said.


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