“Crying Wolf” About the Iraqi Nuclear Weapons Threat

by Kevin O'Neill, Deputy Director

May 14, 1999

ISIS Article Review

“Certifiable nonsense,” says an ex-Iraqi nuclear official about a report that appeared in the March 1999 issue of Reader’s Digest and (in excerpted form) in the Wall Street Journal. The initial report, entitled “Is the Bomb Within Saddam’s Grasp?” by Kenneth Timmerman, claims that Iraq has acquired a pressurized water reactor (PWR) for its nuclear weapons program and is secretly constructing a facility to enrich uranium.

Khidhir Hamza, a former senior Iraqi nuclear official who defected from Iraq in the early 1990s, now works as a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). Timmerman interviewed Hamza for the report, quoting him about Saddam Hussein’s single-mindedness to acquire nuclear weapons. However, Hamza says that he told Timmerman that the information about an Iraqi PWR was not credible. Hamza also says that he told the same thing to a Reader’s Digest editor when the magazine contacted him to verify his quote. The report was published anyway.

Despite Hamza’s conclusions, Reader’s Digest reported the story of an Iraqi defector, now connected to the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a principal Iraqi opposition group. The INC defector, identified as a nuclear “technician” who worked on Iraq’s uranium enrichment programs, told Timmerman that Iraq had acquired a PWR through contracts with China and North Korea.

According to Hamza, the technician is “a dubious source who should not have been taken seriously.” Moreover, Hamza says that the INC lacks the technical background to judge defector information about nuclear activities. Nevertheless, the INC is highly motivated to advance its own agenda against the Iraqi government, even if it means cutting corners around the truth. Hamza says that the INC “shopped the defector around” until it found someone who would accept his story.

Other experts agreed. “A ‘technician’ could be a lot of things,” said one former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector. “The whole report seems based on hype and overstatement,” he added.

A review of Timmerman’s report reveals many inconsistencies and over-simplifications. By crying wolf, the report makes it more difficult for the international community to detect and deter any attempts by Iraq to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. It erodes support for reinstituting IAEA inspections in Iraq. These stories also cast doubt on credible defectors who have real knowledge of the program. The Timmerman report reminded one former inspector of reports that surfaced in the mid-1990s, which were later exposed as wild goose chases, wasting inspectors’ time and resources.

An Iraqi Reactor?

Much of Timmerman’s article concerns information provided by the INC defector about an Iraqi PWR that has been kept hidden from the IAEA. The INC defector also claims that Iraq has concealed 200 bundles of fuel for the reactor, manufactured before the Persian Gulf War, from the IAEA. The purpose of the reported reactor is to produce plutonium for Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

That Iraq would seek such a sophisticated reactor surprises the experts. “It does not make any sense for Iraq to use such a reactor to produce plutonium,” says Hamza. A PWR is poorly suited to produce weapon-grade plutonium–so poor, in fact, that the United States has agreed to help construct two PWRs in North Korea in exchange for the dismantlement of dedicated plutonium production reactors of a much simpler design.

Even if Iraq were to pursue an PWR, many facets of Timmerman’s report are hard to believe. For example, why would Iraq seek PWR technology from North Korea and China? North Korea, as mentioned, lacks the technology to build such reactors on its own. China is also purchasing PWRs from western suppliers.

The defector’s claim that Iraq manufactured 200 fuel bundles for the reactor is suspect. Iraq would have to acquire low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, which is difficult and expensive to produce. According to ISIS president David Albright, who served on an IAEA inspection mission in 1996, “Iraq tried to produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons prior to the Gulf War, but it only produced a few kilograms of LEU.” In contrast, IAEA experts say that Iraq would have required about tens of tonnes of LEU to produce 200 assemblies. If Iraq had acquired unsafeguarded LEU prior to the war, this material would likely have been further enriched to weapons-usable levels for the bomb program. Should Iraq obtain LEU today, it is more likely that it still would seek to enrich it to weapons-usable levels, rather than use it for reactor fuel.

Moreover, IAEA reviews of Iraqi declarations, inspections of the Iraqi nuclear complex, and interviews with Iraqi nuclear personnel have never revealed a plant that could fabricate this quantity of fuel. Iraq did operate a laboratory facility to manufacture and test PWR-type fuel, but according to the IAEA there is no indication that the lab ever processed LEU. IAEA officials also note that this facility was under safeguards long before the Persian Gulf War began. According to a former IAEA inspector, it is very unlikely that the IAEA’s post-Gulf War inspection regime failed to detect a secret, operating fuel fabrication plant.

To support his story, the INC defector provided sketches (reproduced in Reader’s Digest ) of reactor components and fuel. The sketches, which resemble textbook drawings of a large light water reactor and PWR fuel bundles, provide no valuable intelligence information, according to IAEA officials. For example, IAEA officials deny Timmerman’s assertion that the published sketches “match” drawings of the Iraqi core design that were already in the IAEA’s possession. Indeed, the IAEA says that the Iraqi’s never provided the IAEA with a reactor core design, and has found no evidence that such a design was completed.

Timmerman also fails to critically evaluate the defector’s report of how Iraq has kept the reactor hidden from IAEA inspectors. According to the defector’s “coherent explanation,” the reactor could be “dismantled and transported easily,” with components hidden at sites throughout the country. In this manner, IAEA techniques to detect an “operating nuclear plant” have been defeated.

Nuclear experts disagree that such a strategy could work. Documents provided by the defector assert that 60 to 70 people could dismantle and transport the reactor within a few months. In contrast, the IAEA estimates that constructing and commissioning such a reactor even once would take several years and thousands of workers. These activities would require heavy construction equipment and transportation capabilities (by itself, the pressure vessel of a large PWR weighs tens of tonnes). Dismantling the reactor and dispersing its components would be equally challenging. It would be very difficult to carry out these activities without being detected, particularly if they were carried out repeatedly.

Moreover, if the reactor was operational, as the report says, many key components would be highly radioactive–and impossible to move without great danger to the personnel involved. According to a knowledgeable expert, “it is impossible to move the irradiated components of a 1,000 MW reactor around. You just wouldn’t do it … no way, no how.” .

What about al-Ubur?

The report’s other principal finding–that Iraq is constructing a calutron uranium enrichment plant at a facility called al-Ubur–is based on nothing more than speculation. Timmerman reports that the presence of a high-capacity power source and a water purification plant at al-Ubur are “telltale signs of calutrons.” This reasoning, according to one knowledgeable expert, is “hyperbole.” .

According to the IAEA and other experts, the equipment at al-Ubur is “very ordinary” with many civil industrial uses. Timmerman’s “telltale signs,” they conclude, do not by themselves indicate that Iraq plans to enrich uranium at al-Ubur. High power capacity is required for hundreds of industrial uses, which Iraq is permitted to carry out despite international sanctions and suspicions about its nuclear weapons program. Further, water purification is also needed in industry, especially in Iraq, where the water supply is poor. Without harder evidence, one can not definitively conclude that al-Ubur is a calutron facility.

Nevertheless, until inspections were ended last fall, the IAEA inspected al-Ubur. Assuming inspections are resumed, the facility will be monitored again. Even now, the facility can be monitored by intelligence agencies, albeit not as thoroughly as through on-site IAEA inspections. Since the facility is being watched, and is to be subject to inspections again, why would Iraq construct an enrichment plant there? .


The Reader’s Digest report announces “evidence that indicates that the infrastructure for Saddam’s nuclear R&D [research and development] is more intact than previously believed.” However, much of this evidence, portions of which are based on information from an Iraqi defector who has the patronage of a leading Iraqi opposition group, does not bear up to critical scrutiny.

A key lesson of this report is that not all defectors are credible. Their credibility must be established and their information properly evaluated. Too often, defector information is accepted as “truth” without question by non-specialists who are not qualified to assess it. Affixing an imprimatur of veracity to such stories only makes disarming Iraq more difficult.

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