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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
THE GUARDIAN [1]

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.