Libya’s Gas Centrifuge Procurement: Much Remains Undiscovered
by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein
March 1, 2004
Many questions remain about the suppliers and intermediaries involved in outfitting Libya’s gas centrifuge program, aimed at making highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. Missing from the public debate and often at the governmental level is an understanding of the full-range of suppliers of centrifuge components and other equipment needed to create a centrifuge plant able to make HEU. Such a plant would involve assembled, spinning centrifuges connected by pipes into “cascades” that can enrich uranium hexafluoride. The plant itself would likely be relatively small, but it must have special power supplies and control equipment that ensure continuous operation of the centrifuges and equipment that can transfer uranium hexafluoride into and out of the cascades.
Significant new information was provided on February 20, 2004, when the police in Malaysia released the report of its investigation into Scomi Precision Engineering SDN BHD (SCOPE), which has been named publicly as a supplier to Libya’s secret nuclear program. The report has many new details about the operations at the SCOPE plant and the roles played by foreign technical, manufacturing, and transshipment experts, including A.Q. Khan and his associates at the A. Q. Khan Laboratories in Pakistan, B.S.A. Tahir in Malaysia and Dubai, and several Swiss, British, and German nationals.
However, the police report is far from a comprehensive account of the activities of this nuclear black market in supplying Libya. Understanding these activities in their entirety is vital to making sure the network cannot resume its traffic in illegal nuclear components and caches of sensitive centrifuge design information are tracked down and destroyed.
Information on Centrifuge Components in the Police Report
The Malaysian police report states that SCOPE contracted to make 14 types of centrifuge components, including the outer casing and molecular pump. These components are parts for what is commonly called the “P2” gas centrifuge, which is a design that A. Q. Khan stole from the European enrichment consortium Urenco in the mid-1970s and perhaps modified. Table 1, from the Malaysian police report, details nine of the components and the number of them seized from the BBC China ship on October 4, 2003. Figure 1 is a schematic of a similar centrifuge that uses maraging steel rotors and a connecting bellows.
SCOPE reportedly believed the end-use of these fourteen components was non-nuclear, although company officials appear to have made no serious effort to confirm such an end use. The main facilitator for this contract was Tahir with the assistance of Swiss and British nationals, who are listed in the police report.
Centrifuge Components for a Turn-Key Centrifuge Plant
Libya told the IAEA that it ordered 10,000 P2 centrifuges that it intended to install in a centrifuge plant to make enriched uranium. The components made by SCOPE were part of this order. Libyan officials have said that they expected to obtain the necessary components from their contacts in Dubai, such as Tahir. In essence, Libya ordered a virtual “turn-key” plant that would involve others providing the centrifuge parts with final assembly to take place in Libya. The network would provide further assistance as needed. Under such an order, Libya would have needed to do relatively little to assemble and start the centrifuges.
However, the order to SCOPE represents a small fraction of the total number of centrifuge components necessary for a P2 centrifuge. Each centrifuge contains roughly 100 components. Thus, SCOPE was manufacturing only roughly 15 percent of the total number of components for each machine.
In addition, although these components require precise machining and have stringent tolerances, they are, in general, the less sensitive parts of a centrifuge. The missing, more sensitive components include maraging steel rotor tubes and bellows, baffles, ring magnets, and bottom and top bearing assemblies.
Little information is publicly available about the suppliers of the other centrifuge components. The Malaysian police report states that Friedrich Tinner, a Swiss national, was reported to have prepared certain centrifuge components, including “safety valves.” While not certain, this may refer to vacuum valves which are used in a centrifuge cascade. The report does not detail the specific centrifuge components Tinner may have supplied. In addition, the police report said that a Turkish citizen, who had once worked at the German company Siemens, supplied “aluminum casting and dynamo” to Libya, reportedly at the request of Khan. Because the word dynamo in English means a generator that converts mechanical energy into a direct current, it is hard to understand what part is meant here. Perhaps, the term dynamo is meant to describe the motor stator found at the bottom of the centrifuge.1 In any case, this part is supected of being made by a Turkish company.
Thus, key outstanding questions include:
In the end, Libya may have needed to make some of the centrifuge components itself. Toward that end, it was developing such a capability. In parallel to its order for 10,000 centrifuges, Libya also placed an order with the network for all the equipment and materials needed to make centrifuge parts. The police report identified this project as “Machine Shop 1001,” which the IAEA said was to be located at Janzour.
This manufacturing complex was intended to make centrifuges after the initial 10,000 centrifuges were operating in Libya, and thus, by implication, it should be capable of making any centrifuge components for the original 10,000 machines that could not be supplied by the network. However, the equipment received by Libya for this machine shop might not have been capable of making the most sensitve P2 components, such as maraging steel rotors.
The police report details procurements of several of the items for this centrifuge manufacturing workshop, listing Spain and Italy as major suppliers of the machine tools and furnaces. The report also mentions an attempted procurement of piping from South Africa that was not successful. In this endeavor, the report states that Peter Griffin, a British citizen, played a key role in designing the workshop and arranging the procurements for it.
Other Necessary Equipment for a Centrifuge Plant
In addition to centrifuge components, a centrifuge plant needs several other items, such as cascade piping and valves, vacuum pumps, measurement equipment, feed and withdrawal equipment, frequency converters (or inverters) and other electronic equipment, specialized building designs, and computerized control equipment. The police report identifies individuals involved in supplying valves and possibly frequency converters (called a “power supplier-voltage regulator” in the police report) for the centrifuge plant. However, missing from the report are the company names and any description of the quantities involved. In addition, the suppliers of the other equipment and design assistance remain publicly unknown.
The priority now should be finding all the major suppliers to Libya’s turn-key centrifuge plant and associated centrifuge manufacturing plant. In addition, authorities must ensure that any centrifuge components and designs are secured against resale.
One troubling realization is that many people had access to the kind of detailed, technical information needed to manufacture sensitive centrifuge components. For this reason, it is vital that all elements of the manufacturing and transporting network are identified and those involved thoroughly interrogated and prosecuted. An urgent goal is to try to get centrifuge design and associated manufacturing instructions out of the hands of the members of the network and to prevent it from spreading to others. Otherwise, this information could form the basis for a new or reconstituted network that will later sell centrifuges to other countries.
Table 1: List of Centrifuge Components Seized on the BBC China
Source: “Press Release by Inspector General of Police in Relation to Investigation on the Alleged Production of Components for Libya’s Uranium Enrichment Programme,” 20 February 2004, 0700 hrs.