‘US not doing enough to keep nukes out of unwanted hands’

June 17th, 2008 - 10:22 am ICT by IANS  

By Arun Kumar
Washington, June 17 (IANS) A US intelligence official suggests Washington is not doing enough to keep nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists, as others downplayed new revelations about “notorious” Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan’s nuclear black market. “We must take urgent action to scoop up any nuclear material outside state control before terrorists do,” Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, energy department’s intelligence director, said in a speech at the Washington Institute Monday.

“In assessing the capability of states and groups to make good on their nuclear intent, we must consider the possibility of collaboration between states, states and groups, and as the A.Q. Khan network revealed, between rogue networks and customers willing to pay for their services,” he said.

Since 1993 there have been 1,300 nuclear-smuggling related incidents, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). About 19 have involved the transfer of weapons grade uranium or plutonium, which could be used to fuel either a traditional nuclear warhead or turn a conventional explosive into a bomb that disperses radiation.

“The continuing instances of trafficking in nuclear materials means we collectively have not done enough to keep material out of the hands of terrorists,” he said. “We must urgently intensify efforts to acquire any materials that may be for sale on the illicit nuclear market.”

Mowatt-Larssen said the US government assumes terrorists or developing countries can obtain or develop a warhead on their own. Preventing them from acquiring the nuclear materials needed to make a bomb is vital.

Other US officials, however are downplaying reports in the New York Times and Washington Post that an international smuggling ring once run by A.Q. Khan may have given Iran - and other nations - blueprints for a miniature nuclear warhead first developed for his country’s programme.

The reports were based on a study by the Institute for Science and International Security. In its study, David Albright, a former inspector for the IAEA, states that a Swiss family accused of working with Khan had the designs on their computers.

“Why did these smugglers associated with the notorious Pakistani nuclear engineer A. Q. Khan have these designs, unless they had sold or intended to sell them for Khan?” Albright asked.

Considered the father of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme, Khan also ran a profitable network that offered or actually dealt uranium enrichment technology to several other states, including North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya.

State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos Monday declined comment on the Times and Post reports with a bland “Yeah, I don’t have anything on that.”

Stephen Hadley, the president’s national security advisor, too has refused to talk about the possibility on the president’s European trip, other than to state: “We’re very concerned about the A.Q. Khan network.”

No US officials are suggesting the proliferation of nuclear weapons design data is a minor issue or that there is no evidence of Iranian interest in missiles as a delivery vehicle, NBC said. The issue, they say, is whether this particular design, ideal for small missile warheads, actually found its way to Iran.

NBC cited an unnamed “senior US official familiar with the network’s operation” to explain why the US is downplaying the reports, at least publicly. “You’ll have a hard time proving or disproving this,” he said, referring to the possibility that Iran was given the blueprints. “We don’t know that this transfer took place.”

He suggested that while the proliferation of weapons design technology is indeed troubling, “bomb design is the least challenging part of the weapons development process, acquiring fissile material - the enriched uranium or plutonium - is the long pole in the tent, the most challenging part.”

Khan, the official said, was responsible for uranium-enrichment efforts, while the bomb design was part of another section of the Pakistani nuclear programme.

Moreover, it is “not clear how much detail” the blueprints contained and that having the blueprints does not mean one can make a warhead, he said.

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