In September 2007, the Israeli military secretly attacked a site in Syria. What was surprising about the attack, explains nuclear weapons expert David Albright, is what happened next: No one said a word.
"Israel denied that they had done anything," Albright tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross. "Syria tried to trivialize it. The United States wouldn't say anything. So it was a big mystery."
Albright is the president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit organization that monitors and investigates nuclear proliferation. Shortly after the mysterious Israeli attack, ISIS decided to figure out what the Syrian target might be.
"We were hearing stories that it was biological weapons, [a] chemical weapons site, a missile site, a nuclear site," says Albright. "We decided to try to find out using commercial satellite imagery."
The images that ISIS found made it clear that Syria had built a nuclear reactor — and that it had received help building it from North Korea.
"When we looked at the imagery overhead [taken before the Israeli attacks,] the building looked fairly nondescript, and we learned later that Syria had taken tremendous steps to disguise the facility so it wouldn't look like a North Korean reactor," says Albright. "But when you ... measure the dimensions from overhead, you end up with dimensions that are very close to a nuclear reactor that's at the Yongbyon site" in North Korea.
Albright's book Pedding Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies, details how countries like Syria and Libya have developed their nuclear programs with the help of vast smuggling networks located in North Korea and Pakistan. The networks provide key parts, facilities and engineering help — for a steep price.
Albright also describes how Libya developed its own nuclear program with the help of a Pakistani nuclear scientist named A.Q. Khan. Albright spent four years researching how Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, smuggled nuclear-related parts to Iran and Libya.
"Libya was the pinnacle of the A.Q. Khan networks," Albright says. "It was a country willing to buy whole facilities; it was open to making the nuclear weapon itself. It was tolerating pretty slow deliveries of the key items, and [Libya] had very deep pockets."
hide captionDavid Albright holds advanced degrees in physics and mathematics from Indiana University and Wright State University.
Courtesy of David Albright
David Albright holds advanced degrees in physics and mathematics from Indiana University and Wright State University.
Courtesy of David Albright
After Khan's network was discovered by the CIA and MI6 in 2004, Albright says, Libya admitted to having a secret nuclear weapons program.
"It was one of these cases where the CIA and MI6 launched a very successful operation," Albright explains. "It took many years, but the operation was so successful that it helped convince Libya to completely give up nuclear weapons."
Though Khan is not actively supplying countries with nuclear parts at present, Albright says, he remains a threat to global security.
"What you have to worry about is [Khan] helping [countries] intellectually," Albright says. "[He could be] passing information. ... The restrictions on him have gone down. He is active and engaging people internationally. So you have to worry that he could be thinking about helping some others."
And other countries — like Syria — have not completely given up their nuclear ambitions.
"There are a lot of questions that remain [about Syria's nuclear facilities]," Albright says. "One of them is what Syria paid. Another is exactly what Syria got. Evidence seems to suggest that Syria got reactor technology, they got some engineering support and they got some reactor components. ... And one of the biggest mysteries that remains now is, did North Korea provide uranium?"
On how the profit motive drives nuclear proliferation
"Most people are horrified of nuclear weapons. They understand the danger of them. But if they're being asked to buy or sell some vital piece of equipment that costs millions of dollars, then some of the concern is diminished, and they're kind of willing to turn a blind eye. Sometimes they're willing to have the money persuade them that maybe it's not so bad to have nuclear weapons. So the money is vital, and if there wasn't a profit motive, countries like Pakistan would have run into real trouble acquiring nuclear weapons."
On how nuclear trade is different now than in the Cold War era
"What's different is the U.S. and Soviet Union were more independent. They had their own industries. The Soviet Union conducted espionage against the United States to get the secrets of the atomic bomb. But then it more or less used its own industries to put together the capability to put together the bomb. China essentially had tremendous help from the Soviet Union to get it up over the hurdle for having that technology and being able to put together the facilities. What you see now is that the countries that want nuclear weapons mostly look outward to acquire the assistance, both in terms of know-how but also in terms of the vital equipment and materials to put together a program back home that allows them to make nuclear explosive material and to make the nuclear weapon itself. So these are programs very dependent on outside assistance."
On how President Obama's strategy differs from President Bush's strategy in dealing with Iran's nuclear aims
"I think the Bush administration finally started to think through what it wanted to do. And in the last year, it wasn't too bad — but in a sense, it was too little, too late. Obama came roaring in, willing to do all kinds of things. And I think from Iran's point of view, it may be too late. And they're so close to having this nuclear weapons capability, feeling that the punishment so far for moving in those directions is so manageable — it's not been slight, but it's been manageable — I think they want to go further and try to go as far as they can and they're not in the mood for negotiations. The regime [believes] moving in this direction helps them domestically. For Obama, it was unfortunately maybe a little late, so he now has the unpleasant job of ratcheting up the pressure while avoiding war."
On the odds of a nuclear attack happening in Albright's lifetime
"I think the chance of it is low, but it's not low enough. And if you think of the Chernobyl accident in 1986, which spread radiation all over Europe and Russia, [you realize] these low-probability events can happen, and if it's a nuclear weapon it's devastating. It can kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. I don't feel very confident that it's not going to happen. ... I think we have to do everything we can to reduce the number of countries with nuclear weapons, and to actually work towards getting rid of all nuclear weapons."
On the odds of al-Qaida getting a nuclear weapon
"I think al-Qaida is going to work very hard to try to get one. And the more countries that get nuclear weapons — or the more countries working to get nuclear weapons — then al-Qaida's chances improve. They need the nuclear explosive material, and they're going to have to get it, and that's not easy. They're also going to learn how to make a nuclear weapon, at least a crude one that would work for them."
Download or listen to the entire Fresh Air interview by using the links at the top of this page.
Excerpt: 'Peddling Peril'
by David Albright
Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies By David Albright Hardcover, 204 pages Free Press List price: $27
Out of the Cold
December 1975 was a busy time at the tiny single terminal at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. Amid the holiday travelers was a young man traveling with his wife and two small daughters. To any casual observer, this handsome, personable man appeared no different from any of the other harried vacationers and tourists.
In fact, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan was fleeing to Pakistan, having pulled off history's most dangerous act of nuclear espionage.
Khan was "coming out of the cold" just as Dutch authorities were growing suspicious of his activities in the fall of 1975. A pioneer in nuclear smuggling who laid the foundation for pariah governments to acquire nuclear weapons, the Pakistani scientist was an unlikely spy. Born in 1936 into an educated Muslim family of military men, magistrates, and teachers, Khan's middle-class childhood (he loved ice hockey, fishing, and kite flying) ended with the political and religious turmoil created by Indian independence. With the partition of the South Asian subcontinent in 1947, the large Muslim minority in his home state of Bhopal found itself part of Hindu-dominated India.
His older brothers and sisters left for the safe haven of Pakistan. Abdul Qadeer stayed behind to finish high school. At sixteen, he headed to Karachi to join his siblings, making the hard journey alone, first by train, then barefoot across a four-mile stretch of desert that burned blisters on his feet.
Reunited with his family, he pursued his dream of becoming a teacher like his father, earning a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics. After a brief turn as an inspector of weights and measures, Khan left in 1961 to study at the Technical University of Berlin, then to the Netherlands to study engineering at the Delft Technological University. The engaging, charismatic Khan developed close relationships with his professors and classmates wherever he studied, making international connections that would serve him well during his rise to notoriety.
It was also in the Netherlands that Khan met and married a Dutch woman named Hendrina Reterink in March 1964. Khan was a devoted family man who enjoyed making dinner for his wife and, later, his two young daughters, cooking pilaf, kebabs, meat curry, and parathas, a flatbread fried in butter. His neighbors and colleagues were fond of Khan, an avid street volleyball player. One friend recalled that he was "a great source of pleasure in all social gatherings."
In 1965, while he was studying in Holland, war broke out between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a dispute that ended in a stalemate. Deeply disturbed by a documentary he saw that blamed Pakistan for the conflict, Khan embarked on a solitary letter-writing campaign to Dutch newspapers to set the record straight. His letter-writing skills would ultimately prove to be a catalyst that changed both Khan's and Pakistan's future.
In 1971, a pivotal year for Khan, he obtained a doctorate in metallurgy from the University of Leuven in Belgium, and war broke out again between India and Pakistan. When Pakistan was created in 1947, its eastern and western halves were separated by thousands of miles of Indian territory. Growing pressures in East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh, for greater autonomy from West Pakistan triggered a bloody crackdown by the army. Millions of East Pakistani refugees streamed into India to escape the violence and the destruction caused the previous year by the Bhola cyclone, the deadliest tropical cyclone on record. Televised images of the utter devastation, along with George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971, led to an outpouring of support for Bangladesh. For Khan, though, the portrayal of his countrymen as murderers embittered him toward the West.
Further humiliation arrived when Pakistan's army was routed in December 1971. The Indo-Pakistani war lasted two weeks, culminating with the mass surrender of Pakistan's army and the loss of East Pakistan in the face of rapidly advancing Indian troops. Khan and his fellow countrymen had believed that they were a martial race — "one Pakistani can handle ten Indians." This myth had survived the 1965 stalemate, but the loss in 1971 created an identity crisis for both Pakistan and Khan.
In May 1972, Khan and his family moved to Zwanenburg, a quiet Amsterdam suburb, and he began a new job at a technical consulting firm, Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory [ Fysisch Dynamisch Onderzoek-Technische Adviseurs] (FDO). FDO was part of Werkspoor Amsterdam, an important private contractor to the secretive Ultra-Centrifuge Nederland (UCN). UCN controlled all Dutch gas centrifuge work and was a partner with British and German companies in the URENCO uranium enrichment consortium. Founded in 1971, URENCO combined the resources of countries with the ambition to build commercial gas centrifuge facilities but without the sufficient funding to do so alone. These gas centrifuges produce low enriched uranium for nuclear reactors, but could also be used to make highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. HEU was the fissile material used in the "Little Boy" bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Compared to other methods, a gas centrifuge plant is one of the cheapest ways to produce HEU for nuclear weapons. The core of a centrifuge is an ingeniously designed rapidly rotating tube, or "rotor," in which uranium gas spins. The spinning separates the lighter, rare isotope uranium-235 from the more plentiful and less useful uranium-238. In nature, uranium contains less than one percent uranium-235. When centrifuges increase the fraction of uranium-235 in the uranium to a level of 3 or 4 percent, the enriched material can be used in nuclear reactors. When the fraction of uranium-235 exceeds 20 percent, it is called HEU and is usable in nuclear explosives. Bomb makers typically want HEU enriched to at least 80 to 90 percent uranium-235, because at that level the bomb will need far less of it. A crude nuclear weapon requires several hundred kilograms of 20 percent enriched material, but needs only 15 to 20 kilograms of HEU enriched to 90 percent uranium-235, commonly called weapon-grade uranium. If the weapon must be small enough to fit under an aircraft or on top of a ballistic missile, the amount of HEU used matters.
Excerpted from Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies by David Albright. Copyright 2010 by The Institute for Science and International Security. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.