A.Q. Khan, Urenco and the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology – mei 2004

The symbiotic relation between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons

A report written by Joop Boer, Henk van der Keur, Karel Koster and Frank Slijper
Commissioned by Greenpeace International – May 2004

Executive summary

It is now well known that the ‘father’ of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer (AQ) Khan, had his scientific roots in the Netherlands in the 1960’s and 70’s. At that time he had access to what was supposed to be highly secret uranium enrichment technology: the Urenco ultra centrifuge project.

The Khan Network
Thanks to security problems, as well as deliberate and unwitting help from former teachers and colleagues, he was able to build a global nuclear information network and business. From Pakistan, ultracentrifuge technology, knowledge and materials, were exported to Libya, Iran and North Korea. A mixture of legal and illegal transactions, involving businessmen from all over the world as well as individuals in the higher circles of the military and political elite in Pakistan allowed nuclear proliferation to proceed much faster than even those most familiar with the issue expected.

The Urenco Connection
Urenco, founded in 1970, is one of the world’s leading uranium enrichment companies.[1] A Dutch/German/British consortium, Urenco uses the ultracentrifuge (UC) method to separate the useable fissionable uranium from the non-fissionable uranium. The advanced ultracentrifuge technology developed by Urenco uses significantly less electricity than gas diffusion,[2] which makes it much cheaper. Moreover, a UC enrichment plant can be built in modules, in contrast with gas diffusion plants which tend to be large football field sized facilities. Given the commercial advantages of the UC method of enrichment over gaseous diffusion methods, it is becoming the technology of choice around the world and eleven countries now have UC plants.[3]
After many years of denying accusations in that direction, the IAEA and Dutch authorities have recently confirmed that this very technology seems to have made its way to Iran, Libya and North Korea as well as Pakistan.[4] Moreover, it appears that until very recently Khan used the ‘Dutch branch’ of his international network of suppliers and middlemen for Pakistan’s nuclear programme. And one Dutchman is now under investigation for having dealt with one of the other countries as well.[5]

The Risk of Proliferation
There are two steps in the civil nuclear chain which are most vulnerable with regard to nuclear proliferation: the export of technology for uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The vulnerability of Urenco’s security measures certainly goes a long way to explaining how interested states and non-state parties could obtain a nuclear arsenal via civil nuclear technology.

The Future?
US President Bush is currently using the Khan disclosures as justification for prohibiting the further export of technology for uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to countries which do not yet have this technology at a commerical level. This may yet be an important step in diminishing further global nuclear proliferation.[6] The nuclear weapons and advanced civil nuclear states however, already occupy a privileged position in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime compared to other states. This discrimination, simply increases the risk of proliferation, as it cannot prevent vertical proliferation[7] by the nuclear weapons states. The development of new nuclear weapons currently taking place in the US for example, increases the risk of a renewed nuclear arms race among the existing nuclear weapons states. The worldwide abolition of uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, through a comprehensive fissile material treaty is the only real answer to diminishing the risk of nuclear proliferation.
And of course, such measures must be accompanied by the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Full report

[1] Boer, Joop; Uranium enrichment: No capacity growth in 20 years. WISE News Communique 499/500, Oct. 16, 1998.
[2] NEA/OECD, Trends in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle – Economic, Environmental and Social Aspects, OECD, 2001. p.10.
[3] Brazil, China, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia and the UK. In 2003, Louisiana Energy Services (LES) – a partnership of several major nuclear energy companies, including Urenco, Inc (a wholly owned subsidiary of Urenco Ltd) Westinghouse and US energy companies Duke Power, Entergy and Exelon – announced plans for a National Enrichment Facility (NEF) to be located near Eunice, New Mexico. The French enrichment company Eurodif announced in December 2003 it will acquire a fifty percent stake in Urenco’s enrichment technology company and starting construction of a new UC plant at Tricastin in 2005.
[4] “Beantwoording kamervragen van het lid Wilders (VVD) over het ontwerp van de ultracentrifuges in Iran”, 20 january 2004, at www.minbuza.nl.
[5] Alberts and Knip, “OM onderzoekt partner Khan”, NRC Handelsblad, 17 February 2004. The link with Libya was earlier made by Matt Kelley, “Pakistan, nuclear black market linked”, AP, 11 February 2004.
[6] Bush sees nuke crackdown. CBS News, Feb.11, 2004.
[7] Vertical proliferation refers to nuclear proliferation within Nuclear Weapon States, ie production of more or new nuclear weapons by those states who already have them; compared with horizontal proliferation which refers to states who currently don’t have nuclear weapons acquiring them.

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