The measure of Dr Khan

Speaking of wider proliferation concerns, I’d be remiss if I did not mention the recent report Project Butter Factory: Henk Slebos and the AQ Khan nuclear network by Frank Slijper (September 2007 ). From the press release:

Pakistan conducted its first nuclear test in May 1998, after almost three decades of building up the necessary technology. Abdul Qadeer Khan was the key player in this effort, and Henk Slebos, whom he first met at Delft University in the 1970s, was an important contact in a trade that allowed Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons. Project Butter Factory tells the story of Henk Slebos, AQ Khan and the failed international effort to control nuclear proliferation. It is a story of how the drive for profit, competing political interests and weak regulations in the Netherlands allowed the export of dual-use nuclear components to continue unchecked.

The report is a comprehensive account of how the drive for profit, competing political interests and weak regulations in the Netherlands allowed the export of dual-use nuclear components to continue over a 30 year period. The report compiles publicly available data, including materials obtained under the Dutch Freedom of Information Act, to reveal:

* The full story of Henk Slebos’s role in the AQ Khan nuclear network. Khan is widely acknowledged to be the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, with this same network implicated in nuclear proliferation to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Slebos has been Khan’s close friend and business partner for three decades.

* The repeated failure of Dutch security services in stopping Slebos’s trading in nuclear components, and the inability of Dutch authorities to prosecute these activities. The only successful prosecution thus far has resulted in a minor fine. Often action was undertaken only after foreign security services or investigative journalists revealed sensitive information.

* The trade in nuclear technology and components originating from Dutch and multinational companies, including Philips and Urenco.

Just to give some background on Slebos, read this March 28, 2005 Nuclear Fuels article by ace reporter Mark Hibbs:

Pakistan’s quest for UF6 sensors underlines limits of NSG controls

Determined efforts by Pakistan to obtain dual-use equipment used to monitor the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas flow in uranium enrichment plants appear to underscore difficulties encountered by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in trying to halt the spread of technology for producing weapons-grade uranium, according to new information on the incident. In 1999, the firm Slebos Research BV in the Netherlands shipped six US-origin absolute capacitance manometers to Pakistan after having purchased the items from the US vendor’s subsidiary in Germany (NF, 28 February, 1). The transaction was discovered in 2001, sources said last week. Prior to being smuggled to Pakistan, the equipment was legally shipped without export permits between at least two locations in the European Union. In Pakistan, the equipment may have been reverse-engineered and then sold in violation of the US firm’s intellectual property rights. Western officials said they suspect that Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in Rawalpindi, the recipient of the manometers, produced knock-offs of the equipment and then offered these for sale to other parties, including uranium enrichment programs in Iran, Libya, and North Korea. KRL founder Abdul Qadeer Khan admitted in 2003 that he aided those programs. Criminal investigators have found that similar equipment from several sources was part of a pilot plant that was assembled for Libya’s former uranium enrichment program by Johan Meyer, a former employee of South Africa’s Atomic Energy Corp. The plant included gas feed and withdrawal systems. A German engineer, Gotthard Lerch, is under suspicion of having helped train Libyan personnel in Spain to operate the equipment. The IAEA is currently investigating the sourcing of dual-use equipment for the facility, and the NSG wants to query Pakistan about its role in providing dual-use equipment to Iran and Libya. While NSG rules were flouted in the export of the manometers to KRL, experts said, NSG efforts to prevent Iran and Pakistan from obtaining these devices in large numbers, even if successful, would not likely prevent them from producing weapons-grade high-enriched uranium (HEU). The manometers were manufactured by MKS Instruments Inc. of Wilmington, Mass. The firm, a commercial source said, has supplied at least hundreds of such pressure gauges to Urenco, via subsidiaries in Belgium and Germany. For a modern uranium enrichment plant operated under strict quality control conditions, one Western enrichment expert said, you might want that many to monitor the pressure of UF6 to and from gas centrifuges and in cascade piping. MKS was described by experts as the world’s leading vendor of absolute capacitance manometers, with a world market share greater than 80%. The company’s technology served as the basis for both US and NSG dual-use export guidelines for manometers. They are featured on the NSG dual-use list (Infcirc-254) as item 3.A.7: pressure transducers capable of measuring absolute pressures at any point in the range of 0 (zero) to 13 kiloPascal (kPa) and containing pressure-sensitive elements made of or protected by aluminum, aluminum alloy, nickel, or nickel alloy with more than 60% nickel by weight, and conforming to specific accuracy standards. US export control authorities consulted MKS in drafting the NSG guidelines, which came about with our technology in mind, a company executive said. One US official said that MKS had been closely cooperating with US agencies to prevent its manometers from being illegally obtained by foreign uranium enrichment programs. When Slebos in 1998 ordered six manometers from MKS’ subsidiary in Munich, company officials said, MKS warned Slebos that any re-export required export authorization. Nonetheless, in 1999, the manometers were sent to Pakistan from Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. Dutch customs did not question the data in the freight papers, which identified transducers as the commodity shipped, Slebos as the exporter and Pakistan as the destination, in spite of the fact that Dutch customs intelligence agency Fiscale Inlichtings-en Opsporingsdienst (FIOD) had been tracking Slebos’ exporting activities since 1985. At that time, Hank Slebos, the firm’s owner, was convicted by a Dutch court of having illegally exported goods to Pakistan and was known to associate with AQ Khan. Since 1996, when a catch-all clause went on the books, allowing customs to embargo non-NSG-listed items, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, to which FIOD reports, warned Slebos in writing a half-dozen times not to export specific dual-use items to Pakistan because it was suspected they would be used for production of weapons of mass destruction. But The Hague learned of the manometer export only after US Customs had held a meeting with MKS in 2001, and after the firm’s export control officer then flew to Munich and found that its subsidiary had sold the manometers to Slebos two years before. Out the barn door As was the case for the theft of centrifuge design know-how from the Netherlands by Pakistan during the 1970s, the 1999 manometer export allowed Pakistan to obtain a template for equipment it could then produce itself. Once technology like this is out the barn door, it will bite you in the behind, one US official said. One commercial source told Nuclear Fuel that MKS was ‘puzzled’ by the transaction, in which a foreign enrichment program apparently sought just a few of its manometers. Because perhaps a hundred times that many would be used in an enrichment plant, he said, it didn’t make sense that (Pakistan) would go to the bother to buy a handful, unless KRL was trying to make copies. Western officials said they believe KRL has been doing that, and thereafter offering its manometers for sale elsewhere, including to uranium enrichment programs that AQ Khan has admitted he has assisted. Shortly after KRL obtained the manometers from the Netherlands, KRL’s Directorate of Vacuum Science & Technology began printing and distributing a sales brochure for KRL Products of Vacuum Technology. On the cover are depicted several items that strongly resemble the manometers at issue. MKS officials said they were confident that, if KRL had tried to replicate and then copy its manometers in numbers large enough to fulfil the requirements for an enrichment plant, KRL would be unsuccessful in producing equipment to MKS’ quality standards. The sensor materials and technology, officials said, are an industrial secret developed after many years of research and are highly protected. Western officials suggested that, instead, KRL replicated the manometers using lesser quality technology and materials. Lower quality would make a difference to a commercial enricher but not to would-be proliferators, officials said One expert pointed out that, for Urenco and US DOE, which until the mid-1980s likewise bought MKS equipment, extremely accurate measurement of the gas dynamics served the purpose of maximizing SWU economy. If pressures were allowed to vary by between 5% and 10% from optimal operating conditions, to obtain the desired product specified by SWU contracts for power generators, the enricher would have to blend batches of UF6. That costs money and interferes with inventory management, the expert said. But absence of exact pressure control would not be a showstopper for a proliferator determined to produce enough HEU in a break-out scenario for a small number of nuclear weapons. Without state-of-the-art manometers, you might have to do more product management but, unless you had a major cascade pressure or integrity problem, it wouldn’t prevent you from making HEU, the expert said. MKS’ equipment is specifically designed for long lifetimes in corrosive UF6 environments. The equipment might last as long as the (enrichment) plant itself, that might be 40 or 50 years, one expert familiar with the manometers said. Durability would be important to a commercial enricher, but not to a clandestine program, officials suggested. If KRL-sourced gauges exposed to UF6 burned out in about five years, the expert said, for a small plant such as Iran’s Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz, which may have an installed capacity of about 2,500 SWU/y or somewhat more, five years would be plenty of time to make enough HEU for a few weapons. That approach characterized the early years of Pakistan’s enrichment program. A Western official said in 1993 that a large junk pile of failed equipment had accumulated at the Kahuta enrichment plant site since about 1980. MKS has sold hundreds of thousands of manometers all over the world, one expert said. That, plus the fact that the design lifetime of its equipment is very long, increases the possibility that Pakistan may have tapped other sources to get used gauges, a European export control official said. MKS 600-series manometers, which include the equipment Pakistan obtained from Slebos, are offered for over-the-counter sale by second-hand process equipment vendors on the Internet. These items are out there on the market, said Frank Slijper, a Dutch export control expert. One Western official said that the quality of the equipment that a budding enrichment program installs in the cascade halls might therefore indicate whether the plant is intended to generate precisely specified product for power reactors or enough HEU for a weapon in a crash effort. If a proliferator’s manometers aren’t very good, he said, they’ll waste some SWU but they can still make HEU. Iran, which claims its uranium enrichment program at Natanz is for production of power reactor fuel, not HEU, has tried and may have been successful in – smuggling pressure transducers from the US. But these may not have been for Iran’s centrifuge effort.

In February, a grand jury in Connecticut charged Mohammad Farahbaksh, an Iranian owner of a business in Dubai, with conspiracy and illegal export of goods to Iran. These goods included pressure transducers ordered from Omega Engineering, a process equipment vendor in Stamford, Conn. According to charge sheets from the US Department of Justice last month, Farahbaksh shipped the equipment in July 2004 to Iran via the Akeed Trading Co in Dubai without US export permits, after it had been dispatched to Farahbaksh in California by Omega. Other pressure transducers from Omega ordered by Farahbaksh for Iran, the documents said, were not shipped by the company after it was informed of the end destination. US customs investigators said Farahbaksh had worked for the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, a procurement agency for Iran’s Ministry of Defense related to Iran’s ballistic missile development program.

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