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Nuclear Weapons

The Scientist Who Sold Nuclear Technology

February 21, 2018

How one man gave Iran, North Korea, and Libya the building blocks they needed to create nuclear weapons.

Over the course of three decades, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan built Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program from a stolen uranium centrifuge design and a network of grey-market suppliers. But he wasn’t just working for Pakistan—he was exporting, too.

Khan in history

Khan was born in Bhopal, India in 1936. He was one of seven children, the son of a schoolmaster. During the violent partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the family chose to stay in Bhopal, even as millions of other Indian Muslims fled to Pakistan. As Khan grew older, the city’s Muslims faced increasing harassment from the Hindu majority. Four of his siblings left for Pakistan, and at age 16, A.Q. Khan followed them.

Khan enrolled in college in Karachi. He excelled as a student, and a few years after graduation he left to pursue graduate studies in Europe.

The exterior of the URENCO building in Amsterdam. The logo is fixed to side of the building with the tagline "Enriching the future."

Khan worked for URENCO in Amsterdam, where he gained access to classified uranium centrifuge designs.

Khan got a masters degree in Germany and started on a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering. He moved around a few times, got married, and finished his degree in Belgium. In 1972, Khan and his wife Henny moved to Amsterdam, where he had a job working for the European Uranium Enrichment Centrifuge Corporation (URENCO). By all accounts, Khan was a good worker, friend, husband, and father to two girls.

Pakistan’s nuclear ambition

Following one of several wars with its rival, India—a war that had led to the loss of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh—Pakistan was desperate for security and self-reliance. The new leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, formed a secret team to obtain nuclear weapons.

Then India detonated its first nuclear device in May 1974. Pressure to develop a Pakistani weapon intensified. Khan had been following the conflict from Amsterdam and thought that maybe he could help. Even though he didn’t yet have any connections to the Pakistani government, he reached out to offer Bhutto his services. Bhutto accepted.

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Khan got to work. Through his job at URENCO, he methodically stole classified plans for a centrifuge that would create bomb-grade uranium. After years of this, Khan began to raise suspicions—but by then he had enough information. He and his family quietly relocated to Pakistan.

In 1976, Pakistan founded the Engineering Research Laboratories to construct and run a uranium enrichment facility—a massive undertaking staffed by some 10,000 people. Khan was at the helm. The laboratory would eventually be renamed the Khan Research Laboratories, or KRL, in his honor.

The gated entrance to the Khan Research Laborites.

Entrance to the Khan Research Laboratories in Kahuta, Pakistan.

But they needed more than designs—they needed the components to build the centrifuges. Khan used his connections in the West to purchase dual-use materials and technologies, which could be used for either civilian or military purposes. He used a network of companies in different locations to minimize international attention. While the United States was aware of what he was doing, Europeans export control laws were not very stringent, so the Europeans were not able to prevent businesses from supplying him with what he needed. So the lab’s work continued, supplied by businesses that were operating within the boundaries of the law.

Expanding the nuclear network

Long before Pakistan tested its first nukes, A.Q. Khan began making deals with other countries interested in acquiring his lab’s technology. The Pakistani government made no effort to stop him; in fact, it’s likely that some within the government and military actively helped.

Iran was the first. In 1987, Khan closed a $3 million deal with Iran for centrifuge designs and the materials needed to produce them. In 1989, KRL began holding international conferences on uranium enrichment, advertising its capabilities to other nations. By the end of the century, it was sending salesmen to international arms shows to advertise its products. Khan was doing business with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—though their deal fell through when the First Gulf War began.

In 1992, the Pakistani government reached out to North Korea to inquire about their missile technology. Over the next decade, the two countries traded missile technology for uranium enrichment technology.

In 2000, the United States shared their evidence of centrifuge trading between Pakistan and North Korea with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf—who pinned all the blame on Khan. But after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States turned a blind eye to Khan and Pakistani nuclear deals in exchange for help in the fight against violent extremism.

The beginning of the end

Khan continued his work—but his fall was coming. In 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found traces of highly enriched uranium on equipment in Iran—twice. For years Iran had denied that they had a nuclear weapons program, so they declared that the materials were secondhand, originating from another country. Pakistan—and in turn Khan—was implicated.

In October 2003, the British and Americans intercepted a ship carrying equipment to build nuclear weapons to Libya. Evidence connected the shipment with Khan. For one thing, the Libyan enrichment facility was being built based on the same stolen URENCO design as Pakistan’s.

A U.S. soldier stands guard in front of 4 gas centrifuges.

Gas centrifuges intercepted en route to Libya in 2003 are held at a U.S. facility.

US Department of Energy

Months later, Libya turned over plans for an implosion device to investigators—again, it was the same one Pakistan had used. Notes in the margins implicated Khan even further. Pakistan was under a lot of pressure to act.

The fall of Khan

An older man is visible beyond a gate, he appears to be speaking to someone out of frame.

Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan in Islamabad on February 7, 2009. In 2004, Khan confessed to sending nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, although he later retracted his remarks. 

Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

On February 4, 2004, Khan appeared on live television and admitted to his sweeping role in the proliferation of nuclear materials. He claimed that he had acted alone, without the government—though many observers doubt this is true. As punishment, he was confined under house arrest in his lavish mansion in Islamabad. He was released in 2009.

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