- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2002

LONDON Iraq is already using copies of pirated German equipment to process nuclear material for an atomic weapons program, according to a former Iraqi nuclear scientist who testified before the U.S. Senate this summer.
Khidir Hamza, who led a section of the Iraqi nuclear bomb program before his defection in 1994, said the devices may not be discovered even if U.N. inspectors are allowed to return to Iraq.
"The beauty of the present system is that the units are each very small, and in the four years since the inspectors left, they will have been concealed underground or in basements or buildings that outwardly seem normal," he said.
Mr. Hamza was one of the first witnesses at Senate hearings on Iraq in July. But in a series of interviews over the past several weeks, he painted a much more alarming picture than was laid out before the Senate or in a widely discussed report released last week by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
That study concluded that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime could make an atomic bomb within months if it succeeded in acquiring the necessary nuclear fuel from an outside source.
But Mr. Hamza said Iraq already has, and is processing some 1.3 tons of low-enriched material bought many years ago from Brazil.
He maintained that Iraq has also been processing many tons of its own yellow-cake uranium, which has been extracted from large supplies of phosphates in the north.
U.N. inspectors were shown 162 tons of the material before their expulsion in 1998, but Mr. Hamza said there are several other sites that can be used.
"The amount of uranium it already has conservatively estimated in a German intelligence report at 10 tons of natural uranium and 1.3 tons of low-enriched uranium is enough for three nuclear weapons," Mr. Hamza said.
Before their expulsion, the inspectors dismantled an illegally imported German centrifuge that had been used in a program that progressively refines natural or low-enriched uranium until it becomes suitable for weapons.
But Mr. Hamza, who was the science adviser to the Atomic Energy Establishment and later helped start and direct Iraq's nuclear weapons program, said by then the "cat was out the bag."
He said he suspects the Iraqis have taken advantage of the four years since the inspectors' expulsion to make numerous copies of the original smuggled centrifuge and are busily refining uranium into the necessary material for nuclear bombs.
"It's a relatively simple process once you have the plans and some experience operating one or two centrifuges," he said.
The key was provided, he said, when German Karl Schaab showed the Iraqis how to build and operate a centrifuge in 1989, and later helped them build a second.
"Our engineers videoed as it was put up, so they could build identical ones. Then he also provided 130 classified documents and charts detailing every aspect of the construction.
"When the inspectors took away the original centrifuge, we already had the know-how. I believe there are probably hundreds of copies today," said Mr. Hamza, who now lives in the United States.
"They are easy to hide undetectable from satellites if built within or under other buildings."
The problem for Iraq, he says, is simply to keep reprocessing the material so that after each run it gets more and more enriched, until it reaches the 90 percent level needed to make a nuclear weapon.
The process can be completed more quickly if one begins with low-enriched uranium which is at 3 percent to 4 percent rather than only natural uranium, which is at about 0.7 percent.
A really efficient weapons program requires thousands of such centrifuges, as each has a very small output of enriched uranium, Mr. Hamzi said.
Further evidence that such a program is in place came this month when the United States announced the interception of a shipment to Iraq of highly refined aluminum tubes suitable for making centrifuges.
"The whole centrifuge method of getting to a bomb is much easier for Iraq than, for example, it was for Pakistan, which took 17 years in going the same route," Mr. Hamza said. "They had to get it in bits and pieces, whereas we got a whole centrifuge and all the plans."
Experts suggest the method being used by Iraq can take from four to seven years, depending on the number of centrifuges. Mr. Hamza said Iraq would have begun work in earnest as the inspectors left in 1998.
"This means, unless he's stopped soon, Saddam will have set up a whole nuclear bomb industry, not just have made a couple of bombs," he said.
Iraq has repeatedly denied having such a program.
"It's not that Iraq has no material," said Foreign Minister Naji Sabri in a televised interview last week. "From the beginning of 1991 the government had a decision to leave the weapons-of-mass-destruction club. So we presented all we had to UNSCOM [the U.N. weapons inspectors]. There is nothing."
Mr. Hamza, who was working on Saddam's weapons program when Israeli jets bombed the French-supplied 40-megawatt Osirak research reactor in 1981, confirmed long-held suspicions that the facility was to have been used to develop nuclear weapons material.
Scientists had planned not to divert the existing French-supplied highly enriched nuclear fuel enough for one bomb but rather blanket the reactor with natural or depleted uranium, which would produce plutonium. That would have made it possible to continue producing, eventually allowing repeated bomb production.
"From the moment Osirak was hit we knew we had to try another method to get the bomb, and the centrifuge approach is the easiest to conceal," Mr. Hamza said.

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