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Building the bomb: how states go nuclear.

IN addition to the five acknowledged nuclear weapons states in existence today, there are at least another five unacknowledged nuclear powers stationed at varying points along the route towards acquiring nuclear weapons. This article will look at the nuclear programmes, civilian and military, of a few of these de facto nuclear powers. I hope to show the ways in which they have been able to acquire the relevant technologies and materials which have sustained their nuclear weapons programmes.

India took her first steps into the world of nuclear technology in 1956 when she purchased the CIRUS research reactor from Canada. The early inception of the Indian project meant that it was relatively free from restrictions, pre-dating, as it did, the current non-proliferation regime with all its attendant rules and safeguards. The Canadian government of the time did insist, however, that the reactor they were supplying should be used for peaceful purposes only. Accordingly, the Indian nuclear explosion of 1974 which used plutonium extracted from the spent fuel of the CIRUS reactor was termed a 'peaceful nuclear explosion' in an attempt by the Indian government to legitimize this controversial step. Nevertheless the Canadian government would have none of it and immediately broke off all further co-operation with India in the nuclear field. Despite this setback, the Indian nuclear programme continued almost uninterrupted to the point where a nuclear capability, if not already in India's possession, could be procured with relative ease.

According to Leonard Spector, India has never advocated her right to use plutonium from the CIRUS reactor in the manufacture of nuclear explosives. If this is the case it would seem that after the initial nuclear test, and despite having the know-how for nuclear weapons construction, India would have experienced difficulty in acquiring the materials necessary for the job. Indeed, while India did, at the time of the 'peaceful nuclear explosion', operate two nuclear plants at Rajasthan, these were subject to IAEA safeguards, thus preventing the by-products from being channelled into weapons production. It was only when the unsafeguarded Madras-I power plant was started up in 1983 that India was on the way to having an ensured supply of plutonium, unshackled by international obligations, and it is estimated that in its first year of operation the Madras reactor yielded between one and four bombs' worth of fissile material. The production of unsafeguarded plutonium has continued apace in India with some estimates claiming that she is producing sufficient plutonium to sustain a nuclear weapons programme on a scale comparable with that of China.

When sensitive nuclear technologies and materials are bought and sold on the world market, it has become the norm that such transactions will involve restrictions being placed by the supplier on the use of the material by the receiving nation. There are a number of sensitive materials with uses in nuclear weapons development which are routinely bought and sold on the world market, but it is India's procurement and use of heavy water (deuterium oxide: |H.sub.2~|O.sub.2~) which has drawn down some of the most severe criticism upon this nation.

The plutonium used in India's first and only nuclear explosion to date, as mentioned above, comes from the Canadian supplied CIRUS reactor; the heavy water used in the manufacture of this plutonium was obtained from the US also with the pledge that it would be used for peaceful purposes only. Since the explosion of 1974, India's reliance on heavy water for the running of its civilian nuclear industry has remained. In the same way, India's production of plutonium for military purposes is dependent upon regular supplies of heavy water. India's acknowledged heavy water imports have, however, fallen consistently short of the requirements of her entire nuclear industry. When it is considered that India's domestic production of heavy water has never been able to supply more than a fraction of her needs only two conclusions can be reached. One is that India has been covertly importing heavy water so as to escape imposition of restrictions and then using it in their unsafeguarded reactors for plutonium production. The second is that |H.sub.2~|O.sub.2~ has been secretly switched from one safeguarded reactor to another which is unsafeguarded. To supply the Madras-I reactor then, India must either have obtained |H.sub.2~|O.sub.2~ covertly from other unacknowledged sources or have transferred heavy water from other reactors.

Pakistan's nuclear industry was founded in the 1950s in response to two main stimuli: firstly, nuclear power seemed, then, to afford opportunities whereby economic growth and technological development could proceed hand in hand; secondly, keeping a watchful eye on India showed Pakistan that if she were to remain in the same league as her rival then she must make progress into the world of nuclear power. The US Atoms for Peace Programme enabled Pakistan to buy a 5 megawatt research reactor which became fully operational in 1965 and this was followed by the purchase of a 137 megawatt heavy water reactor from Canada as Pakistan began research into uranium enrichment. Since then Pakistan has received training and technological assistance for its civilian nuclear programme from several countries and the IAEA so that in the first 15 years of its nuclear programme Pakistan acquired over 500 nuclear scientists and technicians.

In the mid-I970s in an effort to obtain the means of extracting plutonium from the spent fuel of its heavy and light water reactors, Pakistan made arrangements with France for the purchase of a reprocessing plant. Pakistan was criticised for her plans to undertake reprocessing of spent fuel as it was feared that this was a prelude to the ultimate goal of nuclear weapons development. This fear is given considerable weight when it is recalled that in 1966 Zulfikar Bhutto (then Pakistani Foreign Minister) declared that if India acquired a nuclear capability then Pakistan would catch up even if the people had to 'eat grass'; Pakistan's agreed purchase of a reprocessing facility came only two years after India's detonation of an atomic device. As fears grew regarding the course of Pakistan's nuclear programme France, under pressure from the US, was forced to backtrack on the agreement to sell Pakistan the reprocessing facility and instead proposed a joint project. This proved unacceptable to Pakistan who instead began to set up a number of companies worldwide as a front for the acquisition of enrichment plant materials and technology.

While there has been a dearth of hard information concerning Pakistan's present nuclear status it is thought she has the ability to manufacture atomic weapons. These suspicions would appear to be confirmed by an article appearing in The Guardian on 3 September, 1991 in which the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto asserted that Pakistan possessed the wherewithal for nuclear weapons construction. Furthermore, it is generally thought that Pakistan's uranium enrichment plant at Kahuta has been manufacturing weapons grade uranium since 1986. By 1989 this facility was thought to be producing enough uranium for one to three bombs per annum thus giving Pakistan a stockpile of up to 16 bombs' worth of uranium by the end of 1991.

All things considered it would probably surprise few to learn that Pakistan's thrust into the world of nuclear weapons development has been a catalogue of smuggling and spying efforts including covert assistance from at least one other nuclear weapons state. In the mid-1980s, Pakistan tried to buy equipment and technological assistance from West German firms for the construction of an unsafeguarded reactor. Indeed Pakistan's efforts were greeted with some success when the West German company NTG agreed to the sale of technology and information which would permit the building of a small scale pool-type reactor. This venture into the covert production of fissile material by Pakistan cannot be dismissed lightly; a US visitor to Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission told the magazine Nuclear Fuel that Pakistan could be in the throes of constructing a reactor capable of a 10kg output of unsafeguarded plutonium per annum (enough for at least two nuclear weapons) and that this material could be extracted from the reactor's spent fuel in an unsafeguarded reprocessing plant outside Islamabad.

The sophistication of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme can be seen on considering the fact that she has succeeded in obtaining beryllium from Germany. On placing beryllium around the core of a nuclear device it acts as a shield, reflecting neutrons from the fissile mass back into the centre; this means that the mass of uranium or plutonium in the core can be reduced but still remain 'critical'. Furthermore a report carried in the January 29th, 1989 edition of the New York Times revealed that Pakistan had purchased a tritium purifying plant from West Germany. Tritium is another means of getting 'more bang for the buck' in that when combined in small quantities with a similar amount of heavy water (deuterium oxide) in the core of a nuclear device the kilotonnage of the explosion is increased -- i.e. the yield is 'boosted'.

Despite efforts to encourage vigilance on the part of supplier nations, instances of spying and smuggling will invariably go undetected until it is too late. Indeed the design of the centrifuges operating in Pakistan's enrichment facility at Kahuta was supposedly stolen by Abdul Quadeer Khan while in the employment of a Dutch engineering company between 1972 and 1975. Another attempt to 'acquire' centrifuge materials in 1987, however, did not meet with the same success. Arshad Z. Pervez, a Canadian of Pakistani origin, was apprehended in Philadelphia while endeavouring to smuggle 25t of maraging steel (used in the manufacture of uranium enrichment centrifuges) out of the US.

Finally it has been alleged that Pakistan has received assistance in the design of nuclear weapons from China. At the same time, revelations such as the one carried by The Economist January 1989 Foreign Report, stating that Pakistan had developed an aerial nuclear device would seem to increase daily the global perception of Pakistan's de facto nuclear status.

The Israeli nuclear programme is generally believed to have begun in 1967 in a co-operative venture with France; specifically. France has helped Israel in three key areas. Firstly in the construction of a small research reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert which had the capacity to produce 8kg (two bombs' worth) of plutonium per annum. Secondly, France assisted in the building of a plutonium extraction facility which would enable Israel to reprocess the spent fuel from the above reactor. Thirdly it is believed that Israel was in receipt of nuclear weapons design technology from France. In spite of French 'nuclear aid' Israel still lacked two vital components without which her nuclear industry could not have got off the ground. First of all, the fuel required for the Dimona reactor did not prove too elusive as Israel imported uranium from Argentina, South Africa and France; she also has deposits of her own. The other crucial component for Israel's nuclear programme was heavy water: this proved more difficult to acquire. Over a four year period in the early 1960s Israel imported well over 20 tons of |H.sub.2~|O.sub.2~ from the US and Norway with a pledge that it would be used for peaceful purposes only. If Israel has (as it is claimed) been developing her own nuclear weapons since the 1960s then she must have abrogated the assurances given to Norway (by far the largest Israeli supplier of |H.sub.2~|O.sub.2~) and possibly the US as well.

According to Time 12 April, 1976, Israel had 13 nuclear devices on stand-by during the 1973 Middle-East War. The estimated magnitude of Israel's nuclear stockpile has, however, been redefined in recent years. For over a decade it was considered likely by most experts that Israel was in possession of fewer than 30 nuclear devices of a yield around 20 kilotonnes, that is until the startling revelations in 1986 of Mordechai Vanunu, a former nuclear technician at the Israeli Dimona facility. Vanunu claimed that Dimona's output was 40 kg of plutonium per annum as opposed to the 10kg of previous estimates. Even more startling than the knowledge that Israel has 100 to 200 sophisticated atomic devices is the further revelation by Vanunu that Israel has successfully developed thermonuclear devices and has a number of these in its current stockpile.

Like Pakistan, Israel has been forced to resort to covert means of acquiring components to sustain her nuclear weapons programme. It is known, for example, that in 1975 members of Israel's secret service posed as a team of German chemical industrialists and purchased a shipment of uranium oxide from Belgium. Ten years later an American businessman was arrested on the charge of smuggling 810 krytons (high speed electronic switches used in the detonation of nuclear weapons) to Israel. It is also suspected that France has further aided Israel in her pursuit of sensitive nuclear materials by transferring heavy water purchased from Norway to Israel's Dimona reactor in 1960. Finally, though never openly acknowledged, it is known that some form of collaboration in the nuclear field has occurred between Israel and South Africa. In 1976 a number of covert agreements were signed between the two countries. The substance of these accords is not known but the inexplicable 'flash' detected by a US satellite over the South Atlantic in September 1979 triggered speculation that this phenomenon was in fact a joint Israeli-South African detonation of a low-yield atomic bomb. Concrete evidence to confirm this theory has yet to be produced.

Despite the claims made by Vanunu, the Israeli government has continued to deny possession of a nuclear capability of any description, maintaining that Israel 'will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle-East'. At the same time the Israeli government's assertions are not consistent with their reactions to Vanunu's revelations. As Norman Moss has asked in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist (May, 1989): 'If Israel does not have a stockpile how could Vanunu have given away the secret of one?'. The only way that the two claims may be reconciled is in the possibility that Israel possesses all the requisite components for a nuclear arsenal and that the actual bombs are not stockpiled but await assembly in time of crisis.

The Alfonsin and Sarney governments of Argentina and Brazil, respectively, achieved some success in the late 1980s in dissipating the tension which has for many years dominated relations between the two countries. In particular the nuclear rivalry was downgraded through reciprocal inspections of each other's most closely guarded nuclear projects. These visits took place, however, on an informal basis and, in spite of the moves towards a greater understanding Argentina and Brazil both continued to pursue programmes which were to take them further down the road to nuclear weapons development.

Brazil's lack of fossil fuel reserves coupled with the vast expansion of her population since 1940 and the general urbanization and industrialization of the country forced her to begin exploring the nuclear option in the 1960s. By 1967 Brazil was ordering her first nuclear installation, a 600 megawatt reactor, Angra-1, from the US company Westinghouse. By the mid-1970s the FRG had begun to raise the profile of her nuclear export industry and attracted the interest of, among others, the Brazilian government. By 1976 Brazil had secured the first ever all-in-one nuclear fuel cycle deal unleashing a wave of controversy, not over the sale of the reactor, but rather the inclusion of enrichment and reprocessing facilities both of which could be used to make weapons grade fissile material.

By 1982, Brazilian nuclear engineers at their Institute of Energy and Nuclear Research had succeeded in producing slightly enriched uranium in centrifuges designed and built in Brazil. This breakthrough led directly to the secret construction of the unsafeguarded Aramar gas centrifuge enrichment plant in the state of San Paulo. It is estimated that at full stretch Aramar will be able to produce two-three bombs' worth of weapons grade uranium per annum. The Aramar facility is one section of Brazil's 'parallel programme' set up in the latter part of the 1970s by the Brazilian military government in response to their failure to procure centrifuge technology from Europe. In October 1990 the full extent of the 'parallel programme' was revealed by the Brazilian Secretary of Science and Technology. Jose Goldenberg. He admitted that its aim had been to develop nuclear weapons by copying the civilian nuclear programme, which had obtained materials and technology freely from the West.

When Argentina revealed that she had been constructing an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment plant at Pilcaniyeu, it came as a surprise to many Western governments and experts who had felt this sort of activity to be beyond even a relatively advanced developing country such as Argentina. The function of the Pilcaniyeu plant appears to be the production of 20 per cent enriched uranium for sale abroad, or for use in Argentina's own research and power reactors. Operating at full power, Pilcaniyeu should be capable of an output of around 500 kg of slightly enriched uranium per year. However, if used for production of weapons grade uranium, it has been claimed that this facility could fuel up to four fission bombs per annum. Pilcaniyeu has not, however, reached full capacity as financial restrictions have plagued the Argentinian (and also Brazilian) nuclear programmes and have meant delays in the completion of the Pilcaniyeu gaseous enrichment plant. Until March 1990 Argentina was also in the throes of constructing a facility of perhaps even greater sensitivity than Pilcaniyeu. The Ezeiza Research Complex near Buenos Aires was intended to enable the extraction of around 15 kg plutonium per annum (enough for three nuclear weapons) from the fuel at the Atucha-I and Embalse power reactors.

It was feared, for some time, that Argentina and Brazil were on the brink of a nuclear arms race. These fears were grounded in the suspicion that as soon as the capability became available to these countries then technological momentum and political expediency would push them over the nuclear threshold. The situation in South America nevertheless took a dramatic turn for the better in November 1990, when Argentina and Brazil signed an agreement pledging not to manufacture nuclear weapons and, moreover, to allow the verification of this agreement to be carried out via reciprocal inspections of sensitive nuclear facilities. However there still remains a number of serious disagreements which block the implementation of the agreement. One reason why the details of the agreement have proved so problematic lies in the attitude of the military establishments in both countries, which do not want to see any nuclear options foreclosed. Fears also exist as to the durability of the agreement, i.e. would it survive a change of government in either or both countries. Despite such reservations it is important to note that this accord is a result of the gradual relaxing of tensions between Argentina and Brazil, and serves as an example to countries in other regions where long-standing rivalries are complicated and exacerbated by nuclear rivalry.

In conclusion, then, it can be seen that the infrastructure required for the development of a nuclear weapons potential is best created under cover of a well established civilian nuclear industry; in all of the above cases the military option was made possible by the existence of a civilian programme. The basic principles of nuclear weapons construction are well known; it is the acquisition of the requisite materials and sensitive technologies involved in the development of a nuclear weapons capability which has proved most problematical. The current non-proliferation regime may indeed appear flawed but it must be said that the safeguards mechanism of the IAEA, which is subscribed to by all major exporters of nuclear technologies, has frustrated and delayed the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability by many potential proliferators. As a result states seeking nuclear materials for military purposes have been forced to resort to covert measures in order to satisfy their needs. Countries seeking to manufacture crude and unreliable atomic devices will be able to do so with the minimum of trouble but the development of a relatively advanced capability requires components which cannot easily be manufactured and are almost impossible to obtain on the world market. Countries such as Israel and Pakistan have been able to procure the technologies for warhead miniaturization and hydrogen bomb construction through close ties with other nuclear powers and have thus circumvented the one time necessary step of conducting a nuclear explosion. Such 'nuclear aid' invariably occurs secretly and is only uncovered some time after the fact. Curbing such nuclear collaboration is probably one of the biggest problems facing the guardians of the non-proliferation regime today, particularly with the danger of nuclear technology from the former Soviet Union falling into the wrong hands.

|Elizabeth Clegg has recently completed a period as a Researcher at the Centre for Defence Studies of the University of Aberdeen.~
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Author:Clegg, Elizabeth M.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Words:3486
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