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Sunday, February 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Libya nuclear designs came from China via Pakistan

By Joby Warrick and Peter Slevin
The Washington Post

Abdul Qadeer Khan
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WASHINGTON — Investigators have identified China as the origin of nuclear-weapons designs found in Libya last year, exposing yet another link in a chain of proliferation that passed nuclear secrets through Pakistan to countries in Asia and the Middle East, according to government officials and arms experts.

The bomb designs and other papers turned over by Libya have yielded dramatic evidence of China's long-suspected role in transferring nuclear know-how to Pakistan in the early 1980s, they said. The designs later were resold to Libya by Pakistani scientists through a nuclear trading network that is now the focus of an expanding international investigation, added the officials and experts, who are based in the United States and Europe.

The packet of documents, some of them written in Chinese characters, contains detailed, step-by-step instructions for assembling an implosion-type nuclear bomb that could fit atop a large ballistic missile. Also included were technical instructions for manufacturing individual components for the device, the officials and experts said.

"It was just what you'd have on the factory floor: It tells you what torque to use on the bolts and what glue to use on the parts," said one weapons expert who has reviewed the blueprints. He described the designs as "very, very old" but "very well-engineered."

U.S. intelligence officials concluded years ago that China provided early assistance to Pakistan in building its first nuclear weapon — assistance that appears to have ended in the 1980s. Still, weapons experts familiar with the blueprints expressed surprise at what they described as a wholesale transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to another country. Notes included in the package of documents suggest China continued to mentor Pakistani scientists on the finer points of bomb-building over a period of several years, the officials said.

China's actions "were irresponsible, and raise questions about what else China provided to Pakistan's nuclear program," said David Albright, a nuclear physicist and former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq who has been briefed on the materials found in Libya. "These documents also raise questions about whether Iran, North Korea and perhaps others received these documents from Pakistanis or their agents."

The package of documents was turned over to U.S. officials in November following Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's decision to renounce weapons of mass destruction and open his country's weapons laboratories to international inspection.

Weapons experts in Libya also found large amounts of equipment used in making enriched uranium, the essential ingredient in nuclear weapons. It was that discovery that helped expose a rogue nuclear-trading network that officials say funneled technology and parts to Libya as well as Iran and North Korea. A central figure in the network, Pakistani metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan, acknowledged in a televised confession last month that he had passed nuclear secrets to others. Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf then pardoned Khan.

Of the many proliferation activities linked to Khan's network, the selling of weapons designs is viewed as the most serious. The documents found in Libya contained most of the information needed to assemble a bomb, assuming the builder could acquire the plutonium or highly enriched uranium needed for a nuclear explosion, according to U.S. and European weapons experts familiar with the blueprints.

At the same time, one of the chief difficulties for countries trying to build nuclear weapons has been obtaining plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

Libya appears to have made only minimal progress toward building a weapon, and it had no missile in its arsenal capable of carrying the 1,000-pound nuclear device depicted in the drawings, the officials said. However, weapons experts noted, the blueprints would have been far more valuable to the other known customers of Khan's network.
 
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"This design would be highly useful to countries such as Iran and North Korea," said Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security has studied the nonconventional-weapons programs of both states.

Such a relatively simple design also might be coveted by terrorist groups who seek nuclear weapons but lack the technical sophistication or infrastructure to build a modern weapon, said one Europe-based weapons expert familiar with the blueprints.

As for who delivered the design to the Libyans, a European official who has studied the question said the connection to the Khan network was indirect. "The middleman is quite invisible. The middleman has covered his tracks very well."

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