Nuclear Black Market

By Friedman, John; Nadler, Eric | The Nation, October 18, 1999 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Black Market


Friedman, John, Nadler, Eric, The Nation


The summer trial in Germany of Karl-Heinz Schaab, a 65-year-old technician charged with nuclear espionage, provides a window into the black market in atomic weapons expertise and materiel. Schaab was found guilty of treason in a case that resulted from international inspections of Iraq.

The buyers in the black market have included the governments of Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, India and other countries developing nuclear weapons. The sellers are primarily from the private sector, mainly Europeans-and a few Russians-and European corporations, which have often been headquartered in Germany. (China sells as a government.) Whereas ideological and patriotic loyalties drove the illegal sale of nuclear technology during the cold war, now economic motivations rule.

Today's nuclear weapons underground is not linked to traditional organized crime; it consists of entrepreneurs who are skilled technicians or businessmen. They operate independently or under the aegis of procurement networks set up by nations that want to acquire nuclear expertise. For the most part, they escape law enforcement detection by shipping materials that can also be used for civilian nuclear power or other nonweapons purposes through trading cities like Singapore. Although it is difficult to define the scope of this commerce, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimates that Iraq "spent well over a billion dollars on procurements for its nuclear weapons program." David Kay, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, says that the figure may be as high as $3 billion to $5 billion. Albright adds that "hundreds of people" were involved in Iraq's nuclear procurement efforts.

One of the first atomic entrepreneurs was the late Alfred Hempel, a German businessman who had been a member of the Nazi Party and a German Army officer in World War II. Hempel sold heavy water, a vital component in a nuclear weapons process, to India, Argentina, Israel and Pakistan in the late seventies and early eighties. Another figure was A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist-considered the father of the Pakistani A-bomb-who worked in Europe during the early seventies for a Dutch nuclear engineering firm. After he had returned to Pakistan and begun organizing a nuclear procurement network with headquarters in Western Europe, he was prosecuted by the Dutch government for trying to steal nuclear secrets and later acquitted on a technicality.

Khan's network eventually became the model for Iraq, which increasingly looked to Germany for nuclear aid. The German government had effectively adopted a policy of export uber alles through lax controls, and German firms made substantial profits supplying the Pakistani nuclear weapons project. Advanced in nuclear technology and recognized by Third World nations as a source of superior science and engineering, Germany became the leading supplier to Iraq. German firms, including Leybold, Degussa and Siemens, provided 50 percent of Iraq's nuclear and missile supplies before the Gulf War, according to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

Schaab sold secret blueprints to Iraq of an ultracentrifuge machine that produces enriched uranium, the core of a nuclear bomb. He made trips to Baghdad to help build it, employing skills he had learned at MAN Technologie AG. Schaab quit MAN in 1982 and started his own company, RO- SCH, GmbH. …

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