Understanding the Lessons of Nuclear Inspections and Monitoring in Iraq: A Ten-Year Review

Sponsored by the Institute for Science and International Security

June 14-15, 2001

Uncovering the Secret Program (I) -- the Initial Inspections

Jere Nichols, Chemical Engineer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (retired)

Transcript date: September 4, 2001

David Albright: Our next speaker is Jere Nichols.

Jere Nichols recently retired after a long career in chemical engineering at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he began work in 1954. He was tapped by the IAEA Action Team as one of the experts to help understand the EMIS program. I actually got to know him on an inspection in 1996. Jere is one of the unique contributors to the inspection effort, in that he brought in special expertise with a doggedness to try to uncover the EMIS program.

Jere Nichols: My identification tag says that I am a consultant. I think it should say "retired" because I don't ever want to work any more.

After that excellent presentation by Dimitri Perricos, I plan to keep my talk relatively short. My purpose is to talk strictly about how we uncovered the EMIS program from the U.S. point of view.

This effort began before Desert Storm, when there were numerous indications was building a nuclear weapons program. Regarding the method of uranium isotope separation, it was possible to obtain a sample from Tuwaitha before the war, and it was measured for uranium isotopics. The isotopics showed that there was uranium 238 in the sample--and essentially none of the other isotopes. These isotopics could only have been obtained as the tailings from an EMIS-type separation. If the uranium 235 had been removed in a reactor, for example, there would have been a large relative concentration of uranium 236 in the sample. Higher concentrations of uranium 234 and uranium 235 would have resulted from gaseous diffusion and centrifugation.

Some of us believed that EMIS was the primary method of uranium separation in Iraq, but the deciding votes, back in those days, were cast by people who believed that a proliferator would not use that old-fashioned, power intensive technology. They had concluded that Iraq must be using centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment.

One other thing that happened--before the war--was that Iraq was advertising internationally to buy large quantities of "soft iron" also called "magnet iron." It is iron that can be used efficiently to transfer a magnetic field; it has a low resistance to transfer, but it doesn't hold the magnetic field after the electric current is turned off. The Iraqis needed about ten thousand tonnes of the soft iron, an unusually large amount for their known industry.

One of the inspectors in the first (May 1991) inspection of Iraq was a U.S. expert in uranium enrichment technology. He went up to Tarmiya, expecting to find--on the basis of overhead photographs--a production-scale centrifuge plant. He didn't find what he was looking for, but he did take some very good notes. He sketched the buildings, many of which had been significantly destroyed by bombing and Iraqi disguises, and made notes about the electricity requirements at each of the buildings, but he didn't know what was happening there.

This inspector came back to the U.S. about the first of June. He came through Washington, and people there told him that an Iraqi defector was claiming that Iraq's principal enrichment program used EMIS technology. Our man couldn't believe that, and the very little amount of information that we obtained secondhand from this defector, interpreted by a person who didn't know much about it, confused us even more, because it did and it didn't sound like EMIS.

We analyzed all of the available information for about two weeks and prepared a document concluding that Tarmiya, and Ash Sharquat by extension, were large-scale EMIS production plants. The State Department arranged for three representatives of the intelligence community and myself to brief results of our studies to UNSCOM. We made our presentation to Rolf Ekeus, Bob Gallucci and others at UNSCOM on June 12. One of the intelligence people was a lawyer; he presented all of the information in the form of a case that he concluded would convict Iraq in an international court. The other two intelligence people presented incriminating overhead photography and a summary of information derived from the defector. I presented information derived from building layouts and electric power and estimates of the uranium 235 production capacity of the plants at Tarmiya and Ash Sharquat.

John Googan, who had been working with us at Oak Ridge in analyzing the EMIS data, also made a similar presentation to the IAEA in Vienna on June 12. John's presentation was made public shortly thereafter, so he has often gotten credit for exposing the Iraqi EMIS program.

Three days after these presentations a team organized by UNSCOM and the IAEA left to conduct the second inspection of Iraq. The leaders were Bob Gallucci and Mauricio Zifferero, and later, David Kay. This was the inspection characterized by Iraqi delays, the water tower incident, and shots fired.

In the second inspection, we tried to find some hard evidence of the EMIS separators and their power systems. When we first got to Iraq, the overhead photography had shown a large collection of "Frisbees"--the magnet iron for the systems--at a field named Quar Tall near the former international airport. We got on our bus and rode out there on June 23, but the Iraqis had blocked the road in that particular area and they just wouldn't let us in. They said that they just didn't have permission to do that. We left, and the next day we spent running around Tuwaitha, trying to get permission to go back to that airfield. In the meantime, we found what we thought was proof of EMIS in the so-called "palm tree building" that was very suspicious. It looked very much like a building that was used to wind and test the magnets for the EMIS program.

At the palm tree building, I had brought a magnetometer used it to measure magnetic fields in the building. The magnetometer went off scale, indicating a very high magnetic field in many places including the bridge crane above the suspected winding machine. My watch stopped in this building and didn't run again until we returned home and I sent it to the manufacturer.

June 25 was an unproductive day, stymied by Iraqi refusals to allow entry to several areas. The next day (June 26), as I remember, we went back to the airport storage area. We had received permission to go there, and we drove our bus into the area. It turned out to be just a dusty area, with a few pieces of loading machinery around, and poor, tired, Iraqi soldiers sleeping out on cots, in the heat. Over those two days, those poor men had moved all of that metal somewhere else.

We also visited the Al-Dijjla and Al-Rabee factories at Zafarniyah. These plants had capability for manufacturing mechanical and electrical equipment for the EMIS program. We did not, however, find conclusive evidence of the EMIS program.

Several others and I went to Tarmiya on June 27. We confirmed, with the additional information we had received, many details of the Iraqi EMIS process. One device, which the Iraqis had neglected to hide or destroy was a unit for chemical cleaning of liners of the EMIS vacuum chambers.

The next major finding was made at Falluja as part of the water tower incident on June 28. By measuring dimensions of the trucks and shape of covered units we were able to identify a many parts of production-scale EMIS equipment. We then waited several days for high-level discussions and time for the Iraqis to digest the extent to which we had uncovered the EMIS program.

Near the end of our stay in Iraq (July 2, 1991) our minders took us in a bus to a desert site called Resalsa. Here for our benefit the Iraqis dug up four EMIS magnet pieces (a coil and three pole pieces) that had outside diameter of about four meters. These, most likely, were among those spirited away from Falujah by truck on June 28.

It was in time for us to leave, and a third inspection team, lead by Dimitri, was coming in. Members of the second inspection spent the next few weeks briefing the UN Security Council, committees of the U.S. Congress, and various federal agencies.

I credit the second team with uncovering and proving the general features of the Iraqi EMIS program. The third team did a superb job of characterizing and making an inventory of the EMIS equipment.

I want to say a few things about how we might have done things differently. In the first and second inspections, it might have been possible to obtain better experts--experts that were not hung up on centrifuge, for example. And it might have been possible to have a wider range of experts on weaponization.

One thing that was done, as a part of the inspections, was to have a review in Manama in Bahrain before the team went in and again as the team went out. I found those exercises to be unproductive, in general, although the people there, who were generally intelligence experts, did bring out their pictures and so forth. I asked some of the people in Manama where they got their training in the nuclear business. The chief of the team came around, and he said that he used to fly airplanes as an observer in the Vietnam War, and that the other people had similar backgrounds. I wonder if it would be possible, if this were done again, to obtain people who knew a little about what was happening.

Another observation is with the respect to the method of choosing team members. I think that the method that was used was to select experts who nominally had some expertise in an area to function for a few days, but didn't really get to explore, to the extent that they would have wished, the implications of what they thought they were finding. I believe it was illustrated, in several areas, that the inspectors should have been retained for a longer period in order to be more effective. One inspector, for example, who participated in many inspections and visited machine tool manufacturers, became a real expert in machine tools. I think he now knows more about machine tools than anyone in the world.

I think Dimitri was very fortunate in obtaining Bob Kelley. Bob, in the fourth inspection, concluded that Al Atheer was the primary weaponization site. This observation had not been made by three prior teams. Bob joined the IAEA as a consultant and worked full-time on the Iraqi weapons program for more than one year.

Are there questions?

Question: I had a question about the 25 degree (C) temperature. What would you say to an inspector about the rigors of inspection work?

Jere Nichols: We all ask why it was difficult for the Americans to get a team together. We were all scared. I was, for example, the fourth choice to be the EMIS person, and I didn't know a whole lot about EMIS--the three people who did know were two older guys--John Googan was one of them. Another person was approached, and he said that he was basically a coward and didn't want to do it.

Some of the rigors we were told about, and which frightened some of us, were: the temperature of 25 degrees (C) or so; the humidity; the possibility of poisonous gas remnants from the war; the possibility of the unexploded bombs; snakes and scorpions; bacteria in the food and water; and spies, who searched and placed electronic bugs in our hotel rooms.

Does that answer the question? (Laughter)

Question: When was the information of Iraq's interest in the soft magnetic steel obtained? Was that prior to the war?

Jere Nichols: Yes it was. But the person who obtained the information didn't know its significance. He didn't know that it possibly related to EMIS. So it was never passed through the so-called enrichment people.

Anything else? OK.

David Albright: Thank you, Jere.

Other Conference Transcripts
[Robert Einhorn] [Robert Gallucci] [Dimitri Perricos] [Panel on Lessons Learned]