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Nuclear know-how for sale in black market

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Iran’s nuclear reactors have been under scrutiny of the IAEA.
Iran’s nuclear reactors have been under scrutiny of the IAEA.

Ian Traynor

Nuclear bomb blueprints and manuals on how to manufacture weapons-grade uranium for warheads are feared to be circulating on the international black market, according to investigators tracking the world’s most infamous nuclear smuggling racket.

Alarm about the sale of nuclear know-how follows the disclosure that the Swiss government, allegedly acting under U.S. pressure, secretly destroyed documents from a massive nuclear smuggling investigation. The information was seized from the home and computers of Urs Tinner, a 43-year-old Swiss engineer who has been in custody for almost four years as a key suspect in the nuclear smuggling ring run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani metallurgist who in 2004 admitted leaking nuclear secrets and is under house arrest in Islamabad.

The Khan network trafficked nuclear materials, equipment and know-how to at least three countries: Iran, Libya, and North Korea. President Pascal Couchepin stunned his Swiss compatriots last week by announcing that the Tinner files, believed to number around 30,000 documents, had been shredded.

The extraordinary move, prompting demands for a parliamentary inquiry, was warranted to prevent the documents “getting into the hands of a terrorist organisation or an unauthorised state,” said Mr. Couchepin.

However, there are widespread fears this has already happened or still could. “We know that copies were made,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on the illicit networks at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). “Both U.S. intelligence and the IAEA had been pursuing this with great urgency and diligence. But what happened to the other copies that [Tinner] made? It is worrisome that there are other plans floating around somewhere out there,” he said.

Testimony at the 2006 trial of another Khan network suspect in Germany alleged that Mr. Tinner told investigators he had nuclear bomb designs at his office in Switzerland. The blueprints were in digital form and are believed to have been copied on to the network’s computers in Dubai, the hub for the Khan operation.

“It’s amazing these people had so much information, incredibly sensitive stuff on nuclear weaponisation and gas centrifuges,” said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector. “I’m sure the U.S. got a copy. But who else got the documents? Can you believe these two, the brothers [Marco Tinner is also in custody] were the only ones who got the stuff?”

In his first interview since 2004 with the western media this week, Mr. Khan said the Swiss case proved that anyone seeking a nuclear bomb could easily obtain the wherewithal in the west. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008


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