Stop the Nuclear Threat at the Source

The New York Times
Saturday, August 10, 1991, p. A19

WASHINGTON — For the fourth time since the gulf war, a pack of sleuthhounds from the United Nations is in Iraq trying to sniff out Saddam Hussein’s remaining cache of nuclear treasure. Previous U.N. teams discovered that Iraq was only a few years from building a nuclear arsenal and had managed to hide bomb factories from international inspectors before the war. Unless atomic detection improves, America’s next conflict with a regional power could be nuclear.

“Inspecting Iraq has been like peeling an onion,” says one U.N. official. The first layer, Iraq’s weapons-grade fuel, has been removed from Iraq’s control or is trapped under rubble. The next layer, the equipment needed to make the fuel, has been largely destroyed or buried by the Iraqi Army. The army wanted to erase clues to a deeper layer — the machines and factories needed to make the fuel-making equipment. The U.N. now has a chance to destroy this in Iraq, but is unable to destroy it in any other country that is quietly making the bomb. Therein lies the problem.

By signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Mr. Hussein was obligated not to make nuclear weapons and to open his sites to inspectors. But inspections were limited to what Iraq itself declared, and inspectors had no authority to took for secret sites. This allowed Iraq to masquerade as a treaty supporter while secretly making bombs.

More aggressive inspection would have found Iraq’s calutrons, machines that concentrate the uranium isotope that produces nuclear fission. Iraq had prepared secret sites to run hundreds of calutrons, enough to fuel a small nuclear arsenal in lest than five years. It even ran six experimental calutrons at a site near Baghdad, where inspectors had gone for over a decade and issued clean bills of health. Iraq would be running the calutrons today if it had not invaded Kuwait.

Since the gulf war, U.N. inspectors armed with U.S. intelligence reports and backed by military threats have gained admission to any suspected site in Iraq. This has effectively uncovered and paralyzed Iraq’s nuclear manufacturing base. More of the same will be needed to keep Iraq in check and to monitor other countries trying to make nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union already require a high level of intrusion under the intermediate-range nuclear forces agreement. The two countries can examine each other’s missile sites within hours of making the demand. They also have intelligence from satellites, listening posts, radar and specialists, U.N. inspectors need the same type, of access and level of technical support — probably more. Missing a handful of missiles in the US or Soviet arsenal is barely significant; missing the only nuclear warheads in a hostile developing country threatens world security.

The United States should now advocate Iraq-type inspections everywhere, an idea the International Atomic Energy Agency favors. A good starting point would be South Africa, which has just signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is suspected of hiding nuclear weapons. The US, Soviet Union and others should furnish data on suspected nuclear sites. In addition, America should improve its intelligence on developing countries. In the post-cold-war era, a dollar spent for intelligence on the third world will buy more security than a dollar spent on “Star Wars” or the B-2 bomber.

Inspection results should be made public. The inspectors now in Iraq should name the sources and makers of the machines they find. The U.N. already has a list of Iraq’s chemical suppliers, but refuses to give it out. Unless the suppliers are named and the technology cut off, Iraq will simply resume its secret programs when it starts selling oil again.

At long last, Saddam Hussein maybe doing the world a favor. His country is now a giant laboratory for nuclear sleuthing experiments. The early results show that the old formula for stopping proliferation didn’t work, but that a new one might.