When nations and sub-state actors pursue nuclear weapons, they rarely generate programs on their own. Rather, other states, firms, and illicit networks assist these would-be proliferators. What motivates actors to supply nuclear weapons programs? How can trade in sensitive nuclear materials, equipment, and technology best be combated? To address supply-side dynamics of nuclear proliferation, Carnegie hosted Matthew Kroenig and David Albright, recent authors of Exporting the Bomb and Peddling Peril, respectively. Carnegie’s Deepti Choubey moderated.

State Assistance

Nation states, with their resources, expertise, and capacity to undermine export controls, are particularly worrisome contributors to proliferation. Kroenig argued that regional powers offer sensitive nuclear assistance to nations with whom they share enemies.  He cited several examples where strategic motivations and the desire to undermine a rival’s regional power drove proliferation assistance:

  • The USSR to China: To limit the U.S. role in Asia in the wake of the Taiwan Straits crisis, the Soviet Union provided China with the designs and key parts for a plutonium reprocessing facility and a uranium enrichment facility from 1958 to 1960.

  • France to Israel: Motivated by concern about Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s meddling in Algeria, France reportedly supplied Israel with weapons designs, allowed Israeli scientists to observe a French nuclear test, and helped construct Israel’s plutonium-reprocessing facility in Dimona between 1959 and 1965.

  • China to Pakistan: Concern about Indian power in the region led China to provide Pakistan with a bomb design, uranium-enrichment assistance, and enough highly enriched uranium to produce two bombs.

Khan and Network-Level Nuclear Assistance

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear engineer, is widely regarded as the central figure in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. He began his career as a nuclear specialist when he lived and worked in the Netherlands, gaining knowledge in the Dutch gas centrifuge program and stealing that information for Pakistan. Khan went on to develop a vast transnational network, which he used to outfit Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and then to sell weapons designs, uranium enrichment technology and expertise to interested nations. Export controls failed and a lack of oversight allowed the network to operate relatively freely.

  • The A.Q. Khan network was diffuse and difficult to monitor. Most companies that contributed parts or designs did so unwittingly and were manipulated by Khan, observed Albright.

  • The organization was not hierarchical and its members were largely motivated by profit. Few participants were punished. Even the masterminds were only minimally punished.

  • Though the network has now been shut down, mid-level participants are not being monitored well and could resume operations.

  • Khan’s network attempted to sell nuclear weapons capabilities to a number of state powers:

    • Libya: In the 1990s, Khan sold the nation a 6,000-centrifuge plant and a facility to make centrifuges as well as provided a nuclear weapon design.

    • Iran: Khan offered 2,000 P-1 centrifuges to Iran in 1987. P-1 centrifuges are first generation of centrifuges utilized by Pakistan. Iran only purchased a few of these centrifuges.

    • South Africa: In 1989, Gotthard Lerch, one of Khan’s associates, tried to sell centrifuge designs to South Africa, but the apartheid government thought the price was too high.

    • North Korea: Khan’s network provided centrifuge designs as well as centrifuges and centrifuge parts to North Korea.

Was the A.Q. Khan Network Sanctioned?

The A.Q. Khan network was disrupted in 2003. While the degree to which senior Pakistani officials were complicit in Khan’s network remains unclear, Pakistani Army Chief Aslam Beg claims Pakistan sought to constrain U.S. global influence by empowering its enemies. The Pakistani government has denied authorizing Khan’s proliferation, while Khan has said he was either authorized to transfer centrifuges or his network did it without his active participation. Neither side has offered proof for their claims.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) findings and available evidence on the Khan network support a middle ground, according to Albright. Some of Khan’s transfers appear to have had at least some form of higher level support or sanction, while others did not. Centrifuge transfers to North Korea were in the former category, while the transfers to Libya and most of the transfers to Iran were not sanctioned by the Pakistani government.

Albright suggested that a widespread network like Khan’s is difficult to orchestrate and therefore rare. Although Khan’s and similar networks can pose a significant threat, Kroenig contended that low-level assistance (e.g., helping with a light water reactor project) poses less of a threat than what he termed sensitive nuclear assistance: providing fissile material, nuclear weapons designs, or reprocessing or enrichment technology. Traditionally, only states had the ability to offer sensitive nuclear assistance, but the Khan network showed that this was not true. Kroenig emphasized the need to distinguish between types of nuclear assistance, in order to more effectively focus on the most pernicious methods that spread nuclear technology.

Undermining Illicit Nuclear Trade and Illicit Networks

The two speakers addressed a range of diplomatic, institutional, and military approaches that can be employed to curb the threat of proliferation.

  • Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): The NPT is a diplomatic and institutional level tool that can be used to dampen demand for nuclear weapons, explained Kroenig.  According to Article I of the NPT, signatories are not allowed to transfer sensitive nuclear materials or support another nation in efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Through Article II, state parties commit not to accept such assistance.

  • Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI): Through the PSI, nations collaborate to interdict shipments and transfers of nuclear materials. However, cargo interdiction and military strikes are a last line of defense, Albright observed. Nations would be better served by relying on practices that undermine proliferation earlier.

  • Classified material: Nations that possess sensitive nuclear technology differ on what they keep classified. In the past, the Netherlands, Germany, and China were lax about securing dangerous technology. Nations with sensitive nuclear information should work together to agree upon universal guidelines about which nuclear information needs to be secret.

  • Export controls: Export controls should be universal and enforced, the panelists agreed. Incentives and coercion help persuade countries to develop effective export controls. For instance, faced with the threat that many more of its purchases from the United States would require a license, the UAE created its first export controls.

  • IAEA inspection capability: The 1997 Additional Protocol was designed to expand the IAEA's capacity to monitor sites. However, states seeking secret nuclear capabilities have sought to avoid bringing the Additional Protocol into force.

  • Sharing information: Cooperation between companies and governments has proven to be very productive, said Albright. The United States needs to improve its cooperative programs with industry, he recommended.

  • Financing: A transnational illicit network can evade legal accountability with relative ease. Yet, as Albright noted, targeting finances can be a good route to curbing such networks.

  • Accountability: Those who transfer sensitive nuclear materials tend to evade accountability. Current threats to “hold accountable” states that transfer sensitive materials lack credibility, partly since the states that are engaged in transferring materials are often nuclear weapons states themselves. Kroenig highlighted the need to improve detection and attribution capabilities to better determine which parties should be held accountable. For example, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with South Korea on radiation detection in South Korean ports.

  • Nuclear terrorism: Kroenig argued that transfers of sensitive material to non-state actors should be punished more severely than transfers to states. While a terrorist group is unlikely to succeed in developing or obtaining a nuclear weapon, a group capable of nuclear terrorism would be far more dangerous than a nuclear nation.