A top weapons expert says blueprints for a sophisticated nuclear bomb may have been passed in recent years to Iran or North Korea — or even to terrorist groups.
David Albright, a former United Nations arms inspector, released a report Monday on a smuggling ring headed by A.Q. Khan, the engineer who once presided over Pakistan's nuclear program. Khan and his partners are said to have obtained detailed designs for a small but powerful nuclear weapon, apparently with the idea of selling the plans on the black market.
The bomb blueprints were discovered in 2006, but their existence has only now been made public. They were found on computers belonging to three Swiss businessmen under investigation for their ties to the smuggling ring directed by Khan, who is under house arrest for having sold nuclear secrets to Libya and other countries.
Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, has been following the Khan case for several years. It originally appeared that Khan was peddling only an outdated Chinese bomb. But when investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency examined the computer files, according to Albright, they found plans matching a nuclear weapon developed by Pakistan in the late 1990s.
"They figured that Khan took something from his own country's nuclear arsenal — which is treason, under anybody's laws — and was willing to sell it to other countries or other persons," Albright says.
The Pakistani government claims it shut down Khan's smuggling network in 2004. But U.S. officials have hinted recently that elements of the network may still be active. Albright says the files found on the Swiss computers suggest that the black market activity that originated with Khan went on even after Khan was put under house arrest.
"You see a collection of 50 people involved in this, and these are people who are in the — for many of them, they're in the business of buying and selling. They're middlemen, they're traders," Albright says. "They work in secret often, and so you have to worry that many of these people that really have not been the subject of investigations or public attention just continued, waited a while and then continued. There's no sense that this whole operation really shut down."
The big question raised by the discovery of the bomb blueprints is whether Iran got the plans. The U.S. intelligence community reported in December that Iran apparently suspended research into the design of a nuclear warhead five years ago. Albright says if Iran at that point had the blueprints for a sophisticated device, it may have felt it could afford to hold off on further weaponization research.
But Albright emphasizes that there's no evidence that Iran actually acquired those bomb blueprints. Investigators for the IAEA have been studying documents on an Iranian laptop recovered by the CIA. But Director General Mohamed ElBaradei told the IAEA board last month that not much had been found on that laptop: only a document suggesting that the Iranians were working on a uranium metal design, possibly for a nuclear weapon.
"The agency currently has no information, apart from the Iranian metal document, on the actual design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear material components or of other key components of a nuclear weapon," ElBaradei said.
It's also conceivable that the bomb blueprints found on the Swiss computers were sold to terrorists — or to anyone with the cash to buy them. Albright notes that the bomb design was in electronic form and therefore could have been reproduced many times.
"You're left with a very unsettled feeling that they may have hidden some, others may have gotten it and have it now, and you have in the black market electronic detailed nuclear weapon designs that could be of interest to a lot of people," he says.
In a speech Monday in Washington, D.C., the intelligence chief for the U.S. Department of Energy, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, declined to comment on the Khan case. But he warned that the United States and its allies "have not done enough to keep nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists."