Attention, Nuke-Mart Shoppers!

The Washington Post
July 22, 1990, p. C2

On July 1, the United States and its allies lifted export controls on the very nuclear weapon triggers — called “krytons” — that Iraq tired to smuggle out of the United States in March. Now Iraq can buy these triggers over the counter in Eastern Europe. So can Pakistan, India, Israel, South Africa and any other country trying to make nuclear weapons.

Also decontrolled were “skull furnaces,” which Iraq has been trying to get from a company in New Jersey. The furnaces can melt plutonium for nuclear bomb cores and melt titanium for missile nose cones. They are now on a dock in the Delaware River, blocked by the Pentagon on the last legal ground possible: that the exporter “knows or has reason to know” that they will be used in “fabricating . . . nuclear weapons.” This remarkable stand is the first U.S. declaration that Iraq has an active A-bomb effort.

The move to decontrol was made by Cocom, the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls, composed of Australia, Japan and all the NATO countries except Iceland. The intent was to help Eastern Europe develop its economy. But the effect will also be to help such countries as Libya and Iraq build nuclear arms.

Through what was apparently an amazing oversight, the Bush administration agreed in a Cocom meeting in June to decontrol 30 categories of strategic equipment — most of which are on the dream list of Third World bomb makers. In the words of one U.S. export official: “This is a big problem the administration missed — they were warned about it but they didn’t listen.”

Cocom also decontrolled spin forming machines (which U.S. officials earlier tried to stop Iraq from getting from Germany) used to make uranium gas centrifuges, as well as vacuum pumps. With fewer than a thousand centrifuges, Iraq can produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one Hiroshima-size bomb per year. With vacuum pumps, Iraq can move fragile uranium gas through the centrifuges. Only last year, U.S. officials seized vacuum pumps that Iraq was trying to import from the United States without a license.

These deletions are just the beginning. Want some “maraging steel”? In 1987, a Pakistani was arrested in Philadelphia for trying to smuggle this special alloy — particularly suited for making centrifuges — out of the United States. Now, anybody can buy it by the ton. How about a plasma torch, or a high-speed oscilloscope? Plasma torches can nickel-plate the surface of a plutonium metal bomb core, such as the one that destroyed Nagasaki. Plating makes the core safe to handle. High-speed oscilloscopes can process the rapid data from nuclear tests. They can also help develop missile guidance systems, and can receive and sort the data from missile flight tests. Now both will go to the highest bidder.

Three factors make this decontrol a bonanza for neophyte bomb makers. First, when an item is dropped from the Cocom list, it can be sold to buyers in Eastern Europe without a license. Nuclear triggers can go to Romania, Hungary or Czechoslovakia like bags of onions. There will be no shipment records and no limits on re-export. This means that Iraq, Iran or Libya can order U.S. A-bomb triggers (and oscilloscopes) through Eastern Europe without breaking any laws. So can Pakistan, India or any other country that wants to make the bomb. Iraq and Libya have already used European front companies to import chemical weapon plants.

Second, these items will drop off Cocom control lists in western Europe. Although Cocom is supposed to deny technology only to Communist countries, our European allies have not distinguished between keeping technology away from the Warsaw Pact and keeping it away from Third World bomb makers. “When we send something to India, we are prepared to see it go to the Soviet Union,” said a British spokesman on U.K. export controls. Britain shares this approach with Italy, Spain and other European countries. Thus, when an item falls off the Cocom list, it simply drops out of these countries’ licensing systems.

Third, even if there were some strings attached to sales to Eastern Europe (such as a pledge not to re-export an item without permission) there would still be a great risk of diversion. These cash-starved regimes do not have functioning export control systems. Until they do, their companies can break the conditions of sale at minimal risk.

Cocom made these changes because German exporters, celebrating the end of the Cold War, demanded cuts in the control list. Faced with this demand, the Joint Chiefs of Staff produced a study that selected the few technologies the Pentagon thought it needed to stay ahead of the Soviets — “stealth” airplanes being an example. The Chiefs then agreed to decontrol the rest. For the Chiefs, it was more important to fight the Cold War than to stop the spread of the bomb. As usual, the generals were thinking of the last war.

What makes these changes so important is that they are happening at the very moment when the Third World is rushing to build weapons of mass destruction. In the Middle East, Iran, Iraq and Libya have all imported chemical weapons plants. They are now trying to import nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. In South Asia, India and Pakistan are threatening to have the world’s first nuclear-armed border war — made possible by nuclear imports. In South America, Argentina and Brazil are teetering at the nuclear brink. And elsewhere, Israel and South Africa, pursuing their unique alliance, are building and testing long-range missiles together. In the 1990s, the East-West arms race is being replaced by a North-South arms race. Our export policies have not caught up with that fact.

What can be done? “The best solution,” said one U.S. official, “would be to back up and do it right the first time.” By that he meant that we should not have thrown out East-West controls before making sure that North-South controls stayed in place. Although legislation might help, neither of the two export bills pending in Congress recognizes the problem. According to a Senate staffer, the House bill, which loosens controls even more, “might as well be called the Proliferation Facilitation Act.”

In our haste, we have made the best solution impossible. Now, we can only try to back-fit controls before too much bomb and missile technology rushes from the North to the South.

U.S. law, which still controls several items dropped off the Cocom list, shows how that might be done. Because of U.S. policy against nuclear and missile proliferation, the U.S. goods that can now go to Eastern Europe still cannot be exported directly to Third World bomb makers. For our NATO partners to adopt similar rules, they would have to declare frankly that they oppose the spread of nuclear bombs and missiles — and be ready to take the heat from the Third World. No longer could they blame Cocom for standing between them and their customers. So far, it is not clear that they will do that. If they don’t, their companies will start selling the means to make the bomb, regardless of what the United States does.

But even if our NATO allies cooperate, we will need the cooperation of the old East Bloc. It will do no good to stop sales from western Europe if Iraq and Libya can fill their orders through Eastern Europe. Bringing in the East Bloc would also put a fence around the technology that Eastern Europe is developing on its own. What we need is an anti-proliferation fence around both Eastern and Western Europe.

There are three ways to build it: use the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, use the European Community, or use a new version of Cocom. The Treaty probably won’t work. Although its members have already agreed to control a list of exports, the treaty’s peculiar language limits the list to plutonium and enriched uranium — the two fission bomb fuels — and the equipment directly needed to make them. The list does not cover the hundred or so other commodities — such as nuclear weapon triggers — that are used to make or test nuclear bombs but do not produce bomb fuel. Such commodities are known as “dual-use items” — they also have civilian applications. Treaty members have consistently refused to expand the treaty’s list to cover these items.

The European Community probably won’t work either. Although it already contains the NATO countries, and may soon bring in Eastern Europe, it is still in the formative stages, has many other issues to face and has little competence in export control. Furthermore, the United States has no official access to EC deliberations.

The best choice for controlling nuclear commodities is a new Cocom — with a new mission aimed at nuclear and missile non-proliferation instead of the East-West arms race. To make such a group work, the East Bloc would have to join.

But would it? Eastern Europe obviously won’t join in order to obtain the technology that Cocom has already decontrolled. Now, the West must offer a different incentive. One such incentive is economic aid. Export controls would be a small price to pay for such a boost.

The second carrot in Western hands is the technology that Cocom still controls. Cocom could gradually exchange this technology for cooperation on North-South issues. This would appeal to the Soviet Union, which wants the technology and has its own special concerns about nuclear proliferation. There is no reason why the entire East Bloc could not become part of a new group (with a new name) that included Cocom and operated in the same informal way as Cocom does.

The new group would have two goals: keeping nuclear bombs and missiles out of the Third World, and promoting trade among its members. Trade would increase along with non-proliferation controls. Organizing this would take some work, and there would still be a transition period during which NATO members of the new group denied technology to Warsaw Pact members. The result, however, would be much better than spreading the bomb to the Third World.