Testimony: Iraqi Nuclear Weapon Threat

Testimony of Gary Milhollin

Director, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control

Before the Senate Committee on Armed Services

November 30, 1990

I am pleased to have this opportunity to address the Committee on Armed Services on the subject of Iraq’s nuclear capabilities and what bearing these capabilities may have on Operation Desert Shield.

I am a member of the University of Wisconsin Law School Faculty and director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington, D.C., a project devoted to slowing the spread of nuclear weapons to developing countries.

I will address two questions: first, whether Iraq is a near-term nuclear threat, as the Bush administration has recently argued, and second, how we should respond to Iraq’s nuclear program in both the short and the long term.

I. How Close is Iraq to the Bomb?

During the past week, President Bush and his top military advisors have said that Iraq might produce a nuclear weapon within six months to a year, and that we may have to go to war to prevent this from happening. The President told U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving that “Every day that passes brings Saddam Hussein one step closer to realizing his goal of a nuclear weapons arsenal–and that’s another reason, frankly, why our mission is marked by a real sense of urgency.” Last Sunday, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said that letting the international embargo against Iraq run its course “raises the possibility that we could face an Iraq armed with nuclear weapons.” Defense Secretary Cheney was more direct, saying that “It’s only a matter of time until he acquires nuclear weapons and the capability to deliver them.”

These statements apparently were based on a recent Special National Intelligence Estimate in which top U.S. officials reportedly predicted that Iraq could develop a crude nuclear device in as little as six months to a year in a crash program. Previously, experts inside and outside of the government had estimated that it would take Iraq five to ten years to develop any kind of reliable nuclear weapon. Given that President Bush has been under pressure to clarify the objectives of Operation Desert Shield and justify this massive commitment of force, I think it is important to ask why his administration revised its assessment of Iraq’s nuclear program in the way that it did and at the time that it did.

Saddam’s short-term options:

There are two methods by which Iraq conceivably could fulfill the Bush administration’s most pessimistic forecast and develop a crude nuclear weapon within a year. In either case, since Iraq has no known ability to make nuclear explosive material, it would have to use such material imported from outside sources.

The first alternative would be to divert safeguarded uranium from international inspection to make a weapon. Iraq currently possesses about 12.4 kilograms of French-supplied uranium enriched to 93% U-235, the fissile isotope used to detonate nuclear weapons. France supplied this material to run the Osirak reactor that Israel destroyed in 1981.

The French uranium is in the form of fabricated plates 1.27 millimeters thick made of an aluminum and uranium alloy. The uranium alloy is sandwiched between two aluminum cladding plates. The plates are contained in 33 standard fuel assemblies, plus six control elements, plus some spares. The total quantity of weapon-grade uranium weighs 12.4 kilograms, or 27 pounds. The alloy would have to be chemically broken down in order to get pure uranium. Also, the fuel has been lightly irradiated, which is an additional barrier. It means that the processing would have to be carried out behind shielding, or by a series of workers who would each get a small dose of radioactivity.

Iraq also has about ten kilograms of 80% enriched uranium supplied by the Soviet Union as fuel for small research reactors. Uranium enriched to this level can be used for nuclear weapons. However, even if the two fuels could be blended, twenty kilograms of enriched uranium is not enough to make a simple gun-type nuclear bomb of the type that destroyed Hiroshima. To make a bomb with its safeguarded uranium, Iraq would have to make an implosion weapon, which is a more complex design. There is no clear evidence that Iraq has mastered such a design.

Also, the French and Soviet uranium in Iraq is safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which inspects the material regularly to insure that it is not being diverted for weapons use. The IAEA inspected this uranium last week and a spokesman said on Tuesday that it “was where it should be, and none had been diverted.”‘

If Iraq were to divert the French uranium to make a crude weapon, it would alert the world to its intentions, and would provoke preemptive action by the United States and its allies to prevent the construction of even one bomb. The six-month estimate has been generally interpreted to be predicated on Saddam taking this route. Secretary Cheney implied this on Face the Nation last Sunday when he said, “If he were to take that material [the French uranium], he could produce a crude device with it in a year or less.”

The administration also seems to be assuming that Iraq would divert the material between inspections, which are only held once every six months. However, I spoke to the director of safeguards at the IAEA on Wednesday, and he told me that the IAEA stood ready to inspect Iraq’s uranium monthly if Baghdad requested it to do so.

There is also a second possible explanation for how Iraq could make a quick bomb, which the administration has only hinted at thus far. Last Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who was travelling with the President in Mexico, said that “The statements of the secretary of state and the president are based on information that there is substantial, unsafeguarded nuclear activity going on in Iraq.” It is not clear whether this comment referred to Iraq’s attempts to enrich its own uranium, which I will discuss shortly, or was meant to suggest that Iraq has obtained enough nuclear weapon material from an unspecified outside source to make a simple bomb without touching its safeguarded uranium.

If the administration is suggesting an outside source, it would be an extremely serious development for several reasons apart from the confrontation with Iraq. It would mean that somewhere in the world there is a clandestine source for nuclear weapon material that we do not know about. If the Bush administration does have evidence that Iraq has imported nuclear weapon material from a secret source, it should make this evidence public immediately and stop making vague insinuations about what Iraq might or might not do in the next six months. If Iraq has acquired enriched uranium from a foreign source, the problem is much bigger than keeping the peace in the Middle East. If the administration does not have such evidence, it should not make statements with such grave implications.

If, by one or the other of these alternatives, Iraq should produce a crude nuclear weapon in the next six months, there is another major problem with citing this threat as a cause for war. How could Saddam even be sure that this device would work, -since there would be no opportunity to test it? It would surely be a reckless, desperate act for Iraq to threaten the United States, Britain, France, and Israel–all of which could flatten Baghdad with nuclear weapons–with one untested bomb. Saddam Hussein is a gambler who overreached himself when he invaded Iran and Kuwait, but there is no evidence that he is likely to commit nuclear suicide.

II. The Long-Term Threat

Let me turn now to Iraq’s long-term prospects for acquiring nuclear weapons. This is where the real Iraqi threat lies.

Uranium enrichment:

According to U.S. intelligence reports, Iraq seems to have acquired enough technology to be able to produce a critical mass of enriched uranium within five to ten years, even if the current trade embargo is maintained indefinitely. To do so, Iraq will have to make about a thousand machines called centrifuges, which spin uranium gas at high speed and separate the unstable U-235 atoms from the stable U-238 atoms that make up over 99% of natural uranium. There is no question that Iraq is trying to do this, relying on imported technology.
Iraq has imported a stockpile of natural uranium from several countries around the world and has acquired key equipment for manufacturing centrifuges from German and Swiss suppliers. Saddam has brought in engineers from Germany to install and run the centrifuge-making machines, and has imported from German firms the materials to make centrifuge parts. Congressman Les Aspin recently released a “Persian Gulf Crisis Report Card,” in which he gave Germany a “C” with the comment, “could contribute more,” but in the nuclear area Germany has already contributed more than enough.

There are two key questions to be answered regarding Iraq’s uranium enrichment potential: how quickly can Iraq manufacture more centrifuges, and how soon can it run them efficiently? Iraq already has a handful of centrifuges running experimentally, and the blueprints it needs to make more. But it takes about a thousand centrifuges to produce a bomb’s worth of enriched uranium annually. There is a huge technological chasm between possessing blueprints and actually building and operating that many complex machines, which would fill a space roughly the size of a football field.

The Export Record

Exports have been absolutely central to the realization of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions, and a review of how Saddam has gotten where he is today tells us what is wrong with our nonprolifera¬tion policy–and why going to war will not stop the bomb from

Baghdad’s greatest nuclear shopping success has been in West Germany. In 1987, the German firm H & H Metalform sold Iraq at least three “flow-turn” machines–devices specially capable of making high-speed gas centrifuges. The flow-turn machine produces the rotor–the thin-walled portion of the centrifuge that rotates, one of the most difficult parts to manufacture. According to H & H, the deals were licensed by the German government. Two German dealers actually ran the H & H machines at Tuwaitha to produce centrifuges. West German officials also suspect that these dealers sold Iraq the designs for the centrifuges.

In early 1990, another German firm, Export-Union, sent Iraq 50 metric tons of “maraging” steel, a type specially developed to make centrifuge rotors. This sale was cleared by West German officials, who told Export-Union that the steel did not require an export license. From another Bonn firm, Iraq apparently bought the specially-designed “ring” magnets that hold the spinning centrifuge rotors in place.

After Germany, Iraq’s next largest supplier was Brazil. Throughout the 1980s, Brazil helped Iraq obtain uranium. According to two former Brazilian government officials, Brazil agreed to ship Iraq 100 tons of pure uranium and uranium concentrate (the form in which uranium enters the enrichment process) in the early 1980s, knowing full well that Iraq intended to make atomic bombs. Three shipments were sent in 1981, but for fear of bad publicity, Brazil stopped the deliveries before all 100 tons had gone.

Brazil also prospected for uranium in Iraq, analyzed ore samples there, supplied nuclear material and equipment for laboratory tests, and designed an underground plant to make uranium concentrate, which has not yet been built. A firm in Rio, Natron Consulting and Designing, received $5-6 million for the design. Brazil may even have taught Iraqi engineers how to operate centrifuges. Several Iraqi technical teams visited Brazil during the 1980s, at least one of which had access to the secret Aramar enrichment plant at Ipero, which also uses centrifuges—like Iraq’s–based on German designs. Brazil’s president, Fernando Collor, has just expressed his regret for these episodes, which he said transferred “nuclear technology” that was “potentially significant.”

The Iraqi-Brazilian relationship appears to be a case of Germany’s nuclear progeny playing together. Before making its flow-turn machine deal with Iraq, the German firm H & H had exported the same machines to the Brazilian Navy Committee, responsible for Brazil’s uranium enrichment efforts. According to the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Walter Busse, an ex-employee of the West German company MAN, which make centrifuges, established a “dense network of relations between nuclear bomb builders in Iraq and Brazil on the one hand, and German contractors on the other.”

Other countries also have helped Iraq’s uranium enrichment effort. In December 1989, China was reported to be helping Iraq make ring magnets for centrifuge stabilization. China is known to have supplied similar magnets to Pakistan. Also in December 1989, Western officials were reported to be monitoring exchanges of personnel between Iraq and Pakistan’s centrifuge enrichment plant at Kahuta.

Switzerland entered the picture in August 1990, when it was discovered that customs officials in Frankfurt had seized end caps for centrifuges on their way to Iraq from the Swiss firm Schmiedemeccanica. End caps, specially made from high-strength steel, are needed to seal the tops and bottoms of centrifuges. Schmiedemeccanica was working under contract to Germany’s H & H. As usual, in addition to the caps, Iraq was trying to get the means to make them itself. The customs agents also seized machine tools for making end caps furnished by the Swiss firm Schaeubl in.

Enrichment is only the final stage of the uranium fuel cycle, which is a complex and expensive process. It begins with the acquisition of natural uranium. Iraq has several hundred tons of natural uranium, which cannot be used directly for nuclear weapons but will be needed as feedstock for an indigenous enrichment capability. It apparently imported 100 tons from Niger and 130 tons from Portugal in the early 1980s, without putting the shipments under IAEA inspection. In addition, Iraq has purchased tons of low-enriched and depleted uranium on the world market.

If Iraq ever does produce nuclear weapon material, it would like to have the other parts of the bomb–the “detonation package”–already waiting. Saddam has used his worldwide purchasing network to acquire bomb parts as well as enrichment technology, and the United States has been an important source.

We are all familiar with his attempt last March to smuggle American-made nuclear weapon triggers to Iraq. The triggers consisted of special high-performance capacitors used to detonate warheads in the U.S. arsenal. The Iraqi agents were also interested in buying krytrons, the high-speed electronic switches used in combination with the capacitors to detonate nuclear warheads.

If Iraq someday reaches the point of a nuclear test, it will have American equipment specially designed to monitor the explosion. In 1987, the American company Tektronix sold Iraq a digital oscilloscope which, according to a company official, had nuclear applications. Oscilloscopes are uniquely able to process the rapid data from nuclear weapon tests. They are also used to develop missile guidance systems and to sort the data from missile flight tests. The oscilloscope was licensed and was shipped to SAAD-16, Iraq’s largest complex for chemical, missile, and nuclear weapon research.

U.S. companies have also provided equipment to Iraq that has been used directly in its ballistic missile program, and may someday help deliver an Iraqi bomb. Hewlett Packard sold Iraq $1 million worth of electronic test and measurement equipment and general-purpose computers. Wiltron provided a scalar network analyser to test and develop microwave circuits for missile guidance radars. These sales were licensed by the U.S. Commerce Department between 1985 and 1987. If we go to war with Iraq, we may wind up bombing our own citizens, now held at Iraqi weapons sites, to destroy our own exports. And we would have to ask U.S. pilots to risk their lives to do it.

I strongly urge the Armed Services Committee to begin redressing this situation by increasing the Pentagon’s role in nonproliferation policy decisions. The Secretary of Defense should have the power to concur in all exports of dual-use technologies and munitions, and also in re-exports by the Department of Energy. Under the current system, the export promotion agency (Commerce), the nuclear promotion agency (Energy), and the international harmony promotion agency (State) make these decisions without the help of the security promotion -agency (Defense).

There are recent cases in which the Pentagon has intervened and blocked or slowed pending exports of nuclear and missile technologies, but in other cases DOD has taken scant interest in non-proliferation policy and has meekly accepted the export decisions of the Commerce and State departments. The best case is that of pending exports of supercomputers to Israel, India and Brazil. All of these countries have secret nuclear and missile programs and are ineligible according to our own export standards to receive supercomputers, which are the most powerful tool available for nuclear weapon and missile design. However, the Pentagon–which opposed these sales under the Reagan administration–is knuckling under to other agencies that are not as well qualified to assess the security implications of these transactions, and are simply concerned with placating other governments and promoting U.S. trade.

If the Defense Department wants to be a real player in nonproliferation policy, and not simply be tapped when it is time to send in the troops as the last line of defense against Third World nuclear weapons, it should show that it is willing to devote staff and initiative to these export decisions and keep weapons technology out of proliferator countries. The Defense Technology Security Administration, which was established to control technology transfers to the Soviet bloc, needs a new job. Congress should task it with providing technical support for export licensing decisions, through the Office of the Secretary of Defense. If we had devoted more of our military resources to controlling proliferation at the source in the past decade, we probably would not have to airlift other military resources to the Persian Gulf today.

Stopping the Bomb, in Iraq and Elsewhere

In summary, I would like to make three simple points. First, there is no real short-term risk of an Iraqi nuclear weapon–at least based on what the Bush administration has told us so far. The administration should be ashamed of itself for misleading the public about the Iraqi bomb; there should be a reasonable limit to governmental disinformation when the stakes are so high. If the administration has hard evidence that Iraq has diverted safeguarded fissile material or acquired unrestricted fissile material from outside, the president should make it public and give Congress a real basis for exercising its constitutional power of deciding whether to commit the nation to war.

Second, I believe that Iraq is a major proliferation risk in the long term, and that the current trade embargo may not be sufficient to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
However, I think our security would be better served by developing international efforts to contain Iraq’s nuclear efforts as tightly as possible through nonmilitary means, with military strikes on nuclear facilities only as a last resort. We carried out a forty-year campaign to contain the Soviet Union and prevent war in Central Europe, so we should be able to organize a comprehensive system to contain Iraq, particularly since the Soviet Union is now on our side.

Third, a general war against Iraq, even to stop Hussein from making the bomb, would not solve the problem of nuclear proliferation. Iraq’s pattern of arming through imports is being replicated around the world, and soldiers’ blood is not a morally defensible means of export control. Reckless exports have given Israel, South Africa, India and Pakistan the means to make nuclear weapons, and have almost done so for Argentina and Brazil. As long as there are buyers with money there will be sellers of dangerous goods. Periodic wars, randomly triggered when a nuclear aspirant invades its neighbor, are not a reliable means of containing nuclear technology.

I hope that the Armed Services Committee will keep in mind that it is much easier to prevent nuclear proliferation than to cure it with troops, and I urge the Committee to implement the new role for the Defense Department that I have suggested. If Americans must die in Kuwait to stop the spread of the bomb to Iraq, we must insure that such a sacrifice is never required again.