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Blueprint for nuclear warhead found on smugglers’ computers

Ex-weapons inspec­tor fears rogue states bought plan
Encrypted files linked to Pakistan’s A Q Khan

Ian Traynor

Blue­prints for a sophis­ti­cated and com­pact nuclear war­head have been found in the com­put­ers of the world’s most noto­ri­ous nuclear-smuggling racket, accord­ing to a lead­ing US researcher.

The dig­i­tal designs, found in heav­ily encrypted com­puter files in Switzer­land, are believed to be in the pos­ses­sion of the US author­i­ties and of the Inter­na­tional Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, but inves­ti­ga­tors fear they could have been exten­sively copied and sold to “rogue” states via the nuclear black market.

David Albright, a physi­cist, for­mer UN weapons inspec­tor and author­ity on the nuclear smug­gling ring run by the Pak­istani met­al­lur­gist Abdul Qadeer Khan, said the “con­struc­tion plans” included pre­vi­ously undis­closed designs for a com­pact war­head that could fit on Iran’s medium-range bal­lis­tic missiles.

“These advanced nuclear weapons designs may have long ago been sold off to some of the most treach­er­ous regimes in the world,” wrote Albright.

The Khan net­work was exposed in 2003, hav­ing been found to have sup­plied clan­des­tine nuclear projects in Iran, North Korea, and Libya. Albright has been inves­ti­gat­ing the net­work ever since. The rack­e­teers are known to have pro­vided Libya with an older, cruder, bomb design.

Albright said the net­work might have sup­plied Tehran or Pyongyang with the more advanced and much more use­ful bomb blue­prints that have now sur­faced. “They both faced strug­gles in build­ing a nuclear war­head small enough to fit atop their bal­lis­tic mis­siles, and these designs were for a war­head that would fit,” he stated in a report to be pub­lished this week and which was leaked to the Wash­ing­ton Post. “These would have been ideal for two of Khan’s other major cus­tomers, Iran and North Korea.”

The dis­clo­sures about the new weapons design arose from a Swiss inves­ti­ga­tion into engi­neers await­ing trial for alleged involve­ment in the Khan network.

The Guardian reported in May that nuclear inves­ti­ga­tors and experts were alarmed that extremely sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion from the Swiss com­put­ers — includ­ing war­head designs and details on mak­ing weapons-grade ura­nium — were cir­cu­lat­ing on the nuclear black market.

In recent months the Swiss gov­ern­ment has secretly destroyed 30,000 files and doc­u­ments from the com­put­ers of Urs Tin­ner, a Swiss engi­neer said to be heav­ily involved with the Khan oper­a­tions and also alleged to have spied for the CIA. Tin­ner has been in cus­tody for four years await­ing trial. His brother Marco is also in cus­tody, while his father, Friedrich, whose rela­tion­ship with Khan goes back almost 30 years, has been arrested and released.

“This was very proliferation-sensitive stuff,” said a west­ern diplomat.

The Swiss pres­i­dent, Pas­cal Couchepin, announc­ing the destruc­tion of the files last month, said: “There were detailed con­struc­tion plans for nuclear weapons, for gas ultra­cen­trifuges to enrich weapons-grade ura­nium as well as for guided mis­sile deliv­ery systems.”

Albright found the blue­prints included designs for a com­pact war­head that could fit on Pyongyang’s medium-range Nodong rock­ets as well as on the Iran­ian Shahab-III missile.

Five years ago a boat­load of uranium-enrichment equip­ment des­tined for Libya was inter­cepted by US and British intel­li­gence, and Libya’s leader, Colonel Muam­mar Qadafy aban­doned his illicit nuclear project. That devel­op­ment led to the expo­sure of the Khan net­work: when CIA and MI6 agents exam­ined the Libyan mate­r­ial they found designs, sup­plied by the Khan net­work, for an older, larger, and sim­pler nuclear bomb of Chi­nese vin­tage. The designs were put under IAEA seal and taken to the US.

The new designs, run­ning to hun­dreds of pages, were found in 2006 when the Swiss man­aged to break the codes on the Tin­ner com­put­ers. Also that year, a Ger­man court heard tes­ti­mony claim­ing Tin­ner had told inves­ti­ga­tors he had nuclear bomb con­struc­tion plans at his office in east­ern Switzer­land. The designs were in dig­i­tal form and believed to have been copied on to the network’s com­put­ers in Dubai, which served as the hub for the Khan operations.

The tes­ti­mony sur­faced at the trial in Ger­many of Got­thard Lerch, a Ger­man engi­neer also alleged to have played a cen­tral role in the Khan net­work. The trial was quickly halted because of pro­ce­dural irreg­u­lar­i­ties, but Lerch was put back on trial last week in Stuttgart and evi­dence from the Tin­ner inves­ti­ga­tion is likely to be used in the case.

The Swiss told the IAEA and the Amer­i­cans about their find in 2006. Offi­cials from the Vienna agency and Wash­ing­ton super­vised the recent destruc­tion of the Swiss files.

But an expert on the nuclear net­work, Mark Fitz­patrick, of the Inter­na­tional Insti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies, said he was cer­tain copies of the blue­print had been made and that no one knew where they were.

Accord­ing to Albright, the advanced weapons design is sim­i­lar to a Pak­istani bomb design. Khan has been under house arrest in Islam­abad since “con­fess­ing” in 2004, though there are moves to get him released. The sci­en­tist is seen as a national hero in Pakistan.

In his first inter­view with the west­ern media last month, Khan told the Guardian his con­fes­sion was not gen­uine; he specif­i­cally men­tioned the Swiss case to empha­sise how easy it would be for any coun­try to sat­isfy its nuclear bomb ambitions.

Inter­na­tional inter­ro­ga­tion of Khan might clar­ify the prove­nance and where­abouts of the new bomb blue­print, but the Pak­ista­nis have refused the US and the IAEA inves­ti­ga­tors access to Khan.


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