On the Loose: The Market for Nuclear Weapons

By Ferguson, Charles D. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

On the Loose: The Market for Nuclear Weapons


Ferguson, Charles D., Harvard International Review


Addressing the National Defense University in Washington, on February 11, 2004, US President George W. Bush warned about an underground market that has grave consequences for global security: "In recent years, another path of [nuclear] proliferation has become clear, as well. America and other nations are learning about black-market operatives who deal in equipment and expertise related to weapons of mass destruction. These dealers are motivated by greed, or fanaticism, or both. They find eager customers in outlaw regimes, which pay millions for the parts and plans they need to speed up their weapons programs. And with deadly technology and expertise going on the market, there's the terrible possibility that terrorist groups could obtain the ultimate weapons they desire most."

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Bush rightly underscored the two major risks of the nuclear underground market. First, nations can exploit this market to acquire the capability to make nuclear weapons. Second, terrorists can try to take advantage of this market's trafficking in technology and expertise to seize intact nuclear weapons or the fissile material, highly enriched uranium or plutonium, needed to build nuclear bombs.

Nukes for Sale: The Khan Network

Bush was particularly referring to the AQ Khan network, which emanated from Pakistan but established connections to more than a dozen countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. This network began in the 1970s when Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist, stole technological secrets from URENCO, a British-Dutch-German uranium enrichment consortium. Becoming fluent in Dutch and living in the Netherlands in the early 1970s, Khan used his charm and business acumen to spawn his branch of the nuclear underground market. Ordered back to Pakistan in 1975, he exploited loose international export controls by using his stolen industrial knowledge to obtain the technologies needed to build Pakistan's uranium enrichment capability. This capability can either provide fuel for peaceful nuclear reactors or make nuclear weapons material. Pakistan's successful nuclear bomb tests in 1998 proved that Khan's efforts paid off.

Long before 1998, Khan extended his ambition beyond Pakistan to become a wealthy and influential man. In the 1980s, Khan and his associates started advertising their nuclear wares in glossy fliers at conferences. These ads attracted the attention of Iranian scientists seeking to develop their country's nuclear infrastructure. During the past few years, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations have uncovered the almost 20-year-long Iranian effort to clandestinely acquire the technologies necessary to build an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle.

From the Khan network, Iran purchased uranium centrifuge equipment. Highly enriched uranium contamination found on some of this equipment during IAEA inspections initially sparked concerns that Iran had already begun making nuclear bomb-usable material. In August 2005, IAEA analysis appeared to confirm Iranian assertions that this contamination was present when the equipment was originally bought. While clear evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program has not emerged, the US Government remains adamant that Iran has such a program. The United States believes that the strongest piece of circumstantial evidence is Iran's exploitation of a secretive underground market. Iran retorts that it has no choice but to use this means because it is under sanctions by the nuclear export control rules of the United States and other major suppliers. With Khan's assistance, Iran is known to have built about 1,300 uranium centrifuges for a pilot scale enrichment plant. Assuming that Iran does not have a clandestine enrichment facility, it is still five to ten years away from having sufficient centrifuges to be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb.

Iran is not the only known buyer in Khan's underground market.

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