VIENNA, (Reuters) – The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Friday it had verified Libya’s elimination of a covert atom bomb project, but that the ease with which a Pakistani-led ring supplied it with weapon designs had alarming wider implications.
The A.Q. Khan network that smuggled nuclear weaponisation blueprints to Iran, Libya and North Korea was active in 12 countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a confidential report obtained by Reuters.
The report said Libya, which has emerged from isolation by the West since publicly renouncing a secret weapons of mass destruction programme in 2003, had become transparent enough for IAEA inspectors to give it a clean bill of health.
The Vienna-based agency said inspections in the Arab North African country would be “a routine matter” from now on. But Libya’s contacts with Khan’s shadowy peddlers stretched back to 1984, a decade earlier than Libya earlier acknowledged, said the report, which detailed more sophisticated weapons design information obtained by Tripoli than previously known.
The report, the first on Libya by the IAEA since 2004, said that while inspectors had accounted for all declared nuclear materials there, they could not yet guarantee the absence of undeclared items or activities.
It said a number of boxes of information related to “core and sensitive” projects, such as a plant that could have yielded 10 kg (22 pounds) of bomb-grade plutonium fuel a year, appeared to be missing and Libya could not explain this.
The report said the A.Q. Khan ring had operated in Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.
Blueprints for fuel fabrication and reprocessing plants capable of producing plutonium came from German technology.
“Much of the sensitive information coming from the network existed in electronic form, enabling easier use and dissemination. This includes information relating … disturbingly to nuclear weapons design,” the report said.
IAEA investigations “indicated that a substantial amount of sensitive information related to the fabrication of a nuclear weapon was available to members of the network”, including a document on how to mould uranium metal into warheads more up to date than a related document found in Iran, it went on.
Alluding to fears of limitless access to electronic data, the agency said “clearly this is a matter of serious concern to the agency” and IAEA investigators would continue a worldwide effort to uncover further imprints of the Khan network.
Khan, revered at home as the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb, has been under house arrest since 2004. But Islamabad has kept him off limits to IAEA sleuths and Western officials fear his secrets may have spread wider than North Korea, Iran and Libya.
The IAEA said Libya began allowing intrusive, snap inspections after it renounced nuclear arms ambitions, granting inspectors “unrestricted and prompt” access to sites, documentation and relevant officials for interviews. This had enabled the IAEA to conclude that Libyan statements denying that it ever went on to develop fuel plants or weapons components, accumulating tons of materials including enriched nuclear fuel, dovetailed with the agency’s own findings.
“The report implies that (members of the IAEA’s 35-nation governing board) will now hopefully conclude Libya is ‘off the hook’. There is a lot to support that conclusion,” a European diplomat told Reuters.
Washington has urged Iran, still under IAEA investigation over intelligence indications of clandestine nuclear weapons research, to follow Libya’s example for relief from sanctions. But Iran, whose first contact with Khan was also in the mid-1980s, has not taken up an offer of big trade benefits if it halts its secretive uranium enrichment drive, seen by the West as a latent atom bomb threat, which Tehran denies.