AQ Khan and Nuclear Bomb : Part VII : Abdul Qadeer Khan enters the picture

In 1965, [Abdul Qadeer] Khan scored his first lucky break when Delft accepted him for a master’s program in metallurgy. Professor Dr. W. G. Burgers, an internationally respected theoretical nuclear physicist, was assigned as Khan’s tutor. With his patronage, Khan mounted a series of small research projects, every one of them later documented by the ISI in search of the real Khan. He did not shine. But he did not fail. Above everything else, Khan was thoroughly charming.

He also took it upon himself to defend Pakistan. The ISI found scores of letters written by him to European newspapers and magazines that he felt had misrepresented the Islamic Republic. In reality he was desperate to go home, and in September 1965 he returned to look for work at the newly opened People’s Steel Mill in Karachi. [However] Khan’s application was rejected.

The couple returned to Europe and in 1968 he won a research scholarship to the Catholic University of Leuven in Flanders, Dutch-speaking northern Belgium. Brabers remembered Khan being particularly disturbed by the 1971 war over East Pakistan, which he followed obsessively on television news. However, despite making many applications, Khan still found that no work was forthcoming from Pakistan.

His luck changed in March 1972 when FDO, a Dutch engineering firm based in Amsterdam, contacted Professor Brabers, looking for a metallurgist-cum-technical translator. Leuven’s metallurgy department was well hooked into the European scientific community and Brabers was frequently called upon to match promising young graduates to specialist jobs. This time he thought of Khan. A job that required superficial scientific knowledge but a linguist’s brilliance played to Khan’s strengths, and Henny pressed her husband to take it. In fact, FDO supplied parts and expertise to Ultra Centrifuge Nederland (UCN), the Dutch partner in the URENCO uranium-enrichment consortium. UCN’s plant in Almelo, an unprepossessing town on the Dutch–German border, was running one of the most secretive projects in Europe.

First, Khan had to get through the security screening. An expatriate Muslim from a South Asian country known to be in pursuit of a bomb, Khan should have stuck out like a sore thumb. However, the BVD, the Dutch security service, was bombarded with positive testimonies. Professor Brabers praised his student. The head of FDO’s metallurgy department, who had studied with Khan at Delft, provided a glowing reference which noted Khan had been in the West for eleven years, had two young children and planned to settle permanently in Holland with his Dutch wife. According to extracts from the BVD report, the original of which vanished in 2006, Khan’s former student colleagues telephoned FDO officials to assure them that he was intent on becoming a naturalized citizen.

Even though the BVD ran a background check, it failed to discover that Henny, whose Dutch nationality was used to back Khan’s naturalization claim, was not Dutch at all. She was a Dutch-speaking South African with a British passport, which should have disqualified her as his referee. After FDO assured the BVD that Khan would be working only in low-security departments at their Amsterdam headquarters and not at the top-secret centrifuge project in Almelo, the intelligence service approved limited clearance, rubber-stamped by the Dutch ministry of internal affairs. The Khan family moved into a house at Badhoevedorp, in Amsterdam’s southwestern suburbs, in May 1972.

However, within one week of starting work, FDO disregarded the clearance levels awarded Khan and sent him on a two-day visit to the Almelo plant to “familiarize himself with general procedures.” Khan later told friends he found the scientists there operated in a decidedly “free atmosphere.” The centrifuge hall was housed in the same building as the staff toilets and the coffee shop. As Khan chatted with scientists on 8 and 9 May 1972 he learned exactly what they were doing.

Only four countries, China, Russia, France and the US, were then able to enrich uranium. They did it through diffusion, an expensive and complicated process involving highly corrosive substances and a sophisticated facility, where all the pipes and pumps had to be manufactured from nickel and aluminum alloys, and the entire installation kept free from grease and oil, so as to avoid undesirable chemical reactions.However, at Almelo, scientists had invented the first working prototype for gravitational or centrifuge separation of uranium isotopes. Known as the CNOR, this centrifuge had achieved enrichment levels of 3 percent, enough to fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. This was the same level as was produced by diffusion, but for a fraction of the cost. Although URENCO scientists had never tried it, they calculated that if enriched uranium-235 from the first centrifuge was fed into another, and then into a third, moving on through an entire cascade of interconnected centrifuges, it would eventually be possible to enrich it to the critical mass needed for a bomb.

Khan could barely believe what he was hearing. Returning to FDO’s offices in Amsterdam, he began corresponding with Almelo’s scientists on a weekly basis—chatty, friendly letters that sought, and found, common ground. Within months, they were telling him of their problems with the CNOR’s rotors. The metal arms bent backwards as the centrifuges picked up speed, puncturing the skin of the centrifuge casing, sending shards of metal flying, destroying all around it. Khan suggested that research he had conducted at Leuven into the stresses absorbed by hardened steels was exactly the kind of expertise they needed.He made himself appear invaluable and soon found himself conducting metallurgical research on the Dutch prototype (even though he was barely qualified). The Almelo scientists sent Khan classified design plans and lists of the specialist firms supplying the components. Khan had eased his way into one of Europe’s most closely guarded secrets.

He tried to tip off the Pakistan government. Late in 1972 he approached two Pakistani scientists who were visiting FDO, ostensibly to buy a wind tunnel. They exchanged a few pleasantries but Khan was unable to get them alone. Unbeknown to Khan, the two men were on a mission of their own which involved them having to steer clear of all other Pakistani nationals: shopping on behalf of the Multan project, sourcing parts for a plutonium bomb. Uranium was not on the agenda as far as they or Bhutto was concerned. Khan would have to think again.

He bided his time and mined more information. Then, eighteen months later, in May 1974, he saw footage of the Indian nuclear tests on television. Incensed by the West’s reluctance to come to Pakistan’s aid, Khan immediately wrote his fateful letter to the prime minister, and to his surprise received word back in September that Bhutto wanted his help. Despite being called home, a canny Khan suppressed his excitement and insisted on allaying suspicion by staying put until Christmas, when all of FDO’s staff took annual leave.

Over  the next three months he used his time wisely. Khan learned that a new project was under way that had so thrilled the URENCO directors that all available personnel personnel had been diverted to work on it. German scientists had made a major breakthrough with a prototype centrifuge, the G-2. It was far more sophisticated than the CNOR, could spin faster and for longer, and the blueprints and technical data had been sent over to Almelo for assessment. Such were the expectations for this new centrifuge that the CNOR prototype which had caused so many problems had been ditched altogether. Khan was determined to get his hands on the G-2 material.

To steal blueprints for such a sensitive scientific breakthrough should have required an audacious act of industrial espionage—if it were possible at all. But it turned out to be easier than Khan expected. The G-2 data had arrived written in German and most of the Almelo scientists could only read Dutch and English. As a technical translator with fluent German, Dutch and English, Khan volunteered his services. Anticipating espionage, the Germans had separated the G-2 report into twelve sections, with instructions that they be distributed to staff on a need-to-know basis and in pieces so that no one person saw everything. Khan was given the two least sensitive sections to translate, the “G-2 working instructions.”

Khan managed to persuade his colleagues that he should transfer to Almelo so that he could query anything he did not understand. Space was tight, but in October 1974 Khan was given a desk in Almelo’s final planning and design work section, a temporary building set aside from the centrifuge facility. Among UCN scientists the section was known as the “brain-box” and everyone working there assumed that everyone else had top-secret clearances. “A number of security measures were of course in operation, such as the locking of doors and desks and the need-to-know principle, but among staff members concerned there was an open atmosphere, since the problems on which they were working were all interrelated,” a subsequent inquiry concluded. Khan shared an office with someone who was translating the pages of the classified G-2 report that preceded his own. This man later admitted to investigators that he was away from his desk for long periods of time, giving anyone in the room ample time to read the material he had left on his desk.

Over the course of three weeks, Khan scribbled away in a small black notebook, copying down secrets. He need not have bothered, because eventually he was able to read the whole report. He learned that it was being sent to FDO’s offices in Amsterdam for typing, since “there was only one typist available to the staff of the brain-box” and she did not have the time to do the job.Khan, who had already charmed the FDO typists by regularly bringing them boxes of sweets and cakes, returned to Amsterdam, talked them into handing it over, and copied it all down.

In December 1974, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, Henny and their two children left for Karachi—as he had advised the Pakistani government he would.He patiently explained to Bhutto how centrifuge technology could be developed at twice the speed of the existing plutonium program being run by PAEC. It was also much cheaper. India’s nuclear budget in 1974 was $130 million, and to date New Delhi had spent $1 billion on its plutonium program. Khan presented a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Using the CNOR or G-2 prototype, the blueprints for both of which he had managed to copy, 180 kg of natural uranium was needed to produce 1 kg of uranium-235 enriched to more than 90 percent. URENCO scientists were feeding UF6 through the centrifuges twelve to fifteen times in order to achieve 3 percent enrichment. Khan estimated that if the same UF6 were to be reintroduced into the centrifuges sixty-five or seventy times it would be possible to reach 90 percent enrichment in fifteen days. Each nuclear weapon typically contained about 15 kg of highly enriched uranium, which meant that at a market price of $22 per kg for raw uranium it would cost Pakistan only $60,000 to manufacture enough fissile material for a bomb.

Bhutto was staggered. But the real beauty of Khan’s plan was that Pakistan would not even need to source raw uranium oxide on the open market, since Khalid Aslam, a geologist at PAEC, had discovered a vein in the foothills of Pakistan’s Suleiman mountain range in 1963 and the country had an enormous stockpile.

Bhutto was sold on the plan but also asked his chief scientific advisers to check out Khan’s claims. Bhutto had read the ISI report and could see that Khan was a man capable of credible fabrication. He instructed PAEC chairman Munir Ahmed Khan to interview A. Q. Khan, who informed him about the correct method of procuring nuclear technology. The meeting went badly. Munir Ahmed Khan was not accustomed to being lectured by anyone, especially a forty-year-old expatriate with scant scientific qualifications. According to friends and colleagues, this first discussion set the tone for a rivalry that would span both their careers. And when A. Q. Khan was called back for a second meeting with his prime minister he did his best to undermine the PAEC program.

The plutonium route might take more than two decades, A. Q. Khan told Bhutto, describing the PAEC project as a “white elephant.” Bhutto was already aware of how difficult and costly it had been for Pakistan to negotiate the purchase of a reprocessing plant from France (that was still ongoing). Playing on these fears, Khan warned that even if they got the plant, it would be snarled up in IAEA inspections. Centrifuges, however, could be constructed, unobserved, with components available on the open market. No one outside Pakistan need know. Khan piled on the pressure and he did it in a ruthless fashion. He told his prime minister: “Munir and his people are liars and cheats. They have no love for the country. They are not even faithful to you. They have told you a pack of lies.”

Bhutto could deal with Khan’s ambition and his aggression, he thought. The prime minister concluded after this second meeting: “Khan is the only man who can fulfil my dream of making Pakistan an atomic power.” Khan was instructed to take his family back to Holland and keep his head down. He was told to gather all he could about the German breakthrough in centrifuge design, while Munir Ahmed Khan was asked to begin researching the building of a uranium enrichment plant.

Excerpted from “Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network

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