Jeffrey LewisObsolete Technologies and Proliferation

Some folks are suggesting that we should go easy on Roy Lee Oakley—the inept contract worker attempted to sell sections of a gaseous diffusion barriers to an FBI agent posing as a French embassy employee—on the grounds that gaseous diffusion is “obsolete and [has been] replaced by cheaper and more efficient methods of uranium enrichment.”

Obsolescence is irrelevant from a proliferation stand-point. As one might infer from Iraq’s pre-1991 EMIS program, “obsolete” technologies are still perfectly adequate to make nuclear weapons. Peter Zimmerman nailed this in one of my favorite articles, Proliferation: Bronze Medal Technology is Enough:

To acquire a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery missiles, a country does not need to take home the gold medal in the military-technology Olympics. It can strive merely for the bronze medal and obtain an arsenal that can deter its neighbors with the threat of nuclear destruction. Indeed, for a state seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, success with older, tried and proven technologies—whose names can be found in college textbooks, and which are components of commercial products—is preferable to failure in developing the most modern weapons used by the more advanced states. Thus, Iraq’s rediscovery of the electromagnetic isotope separation system (EMIS, or calutrons) as an alternate means of enriching uranium (rather than relying on imported technologies that might have been embargoed) set a precedent that others are likely to follow. The bronze medal earns a developing country a place on the winners’ podium; failure in the pursuit of a high technology does not. (Orbis 38:1, Winter 1994)

In addition to EMIS, Iraq before 1991 also pursued a gaseous diffusion program just as China did to produce fissile material for early Chinese nuclear weapons. GD might not be the preferred route but than again, you can’t always get what you want.

Hell, once you’ve chosen enrichment over plutonium separation, you’re already making big compromises.

Of course, an interesting question is what information a would-be nuclear state would acquire from examining a sample of the classified material.

Given that the composition of the barrier material is the major technological challenge, my guess (and it is a guess) is that the harm might be significant—measured in terms of saving months or more of research—even if the scientists used the barrier for nothing more than confirmation that another method of enrichment (such as EMIS or centrifuges) would be a better investment.


  1. chipmunk 007

    EMIS and centrifuges are easier to hide from surveillance than diffusion. If Oakley had succeeded in selling diffusion to, say, Venezuela, perhaps he would be in line for the Medal of Freedom.

  2. Robot Economist (History)

    Oh man, I love that essay.

    Considering how the 60 year-old SCUD is still one of the most (if not the most) popular ballistic missile in the world, it is kind of surprising to see how unpopular calutrons and GD have been since the 40s. I guess the demand for horizontal proliferation isn’t as strong as we perceive it to be.

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    OK, I just gotta plug something I wrote a while back (Dec. 1992, actually, though it took a while to get into print) that tries to make the point that technologies that never get into the big leagues, let alone get a bronze medal, can be significant.

    Counter-space and ASAT, anyone?

  4. None (History)

    Very few people are aware of how old the current inventory of hardware really are—- ie the original Patriot and Standard architecture dates from the late 1960s. Yes, it has been greatly improved on, but the basic design, is, um, nearly 50 years old.

    Likewise, the designs for many PGMs in current inventory date from President Carter’s era.

    The old stuff is not only good, but many of their designs are fundamentally sound and have stood the test of time regardless of whether it is ‘Gold’ or ‘Bronze’ knowhow.

    Once upon a time, a fictional country who wanted submarines but faced great difficulties getting them were offered a unique proposal: access to an archive of blueprints for nearly every German U-Boat ever built.

    An intelligent group of engineers would be able to trace the design history, match it up with how materials and techniques (like welding) have improved, and then, with not much work fast forward the lessons learned to a modern design that is built with currently available materials and techniques, with considerable improvements possible because of the widespread availability of simulation tools for structural design (e.g. finite element analysis), hydrodynamics, and failure analysis.

    Mind you, there still remains a lot of work to be done in areas like figuring out how to build a modern sensor suite, battle management system, and such mundane things as figuring out crew training and doctrine from the ground up. There are also areas like propeller technology which has accelerated by leaps and bounds, and things like noise cancellation technologies which was not available until the last few decades.

    Needless to say, this fictional country thought it was far too much work and instead, chose to go shopping on the world arms market.

    For a variety of reasons, they still don’t have new subs. If they chose to learn from the old junk, they would probably have had their fleet for a fraction of the cost of buying them.

  5. Toby Roberts (History)

    Although Roy Lynn Oakley may have broken a law associated with Restricted Data classified information one should be reminded that the continued protection of tons of classified information has often been called into question as serving no useful purpose. The technology that was stolen was “born secret” like millions of other bits of information that had even a remote association with nuclear weapons technology. Though the “born secret” classification practice is no longer supported it has left in its wake a huge body of secrets that may never be reviewed for its continued usefulness. Though its illegal to classify something that could prove embarrassing its common knowledge that this takes place. New rules require a balancing of the public’s right to know with the protection of sensitive information when classification decisions are made. The balance tends to shift along with the political wind. Typically, the bureaucrats who are charged with such decisions choose classification as the safest path. This is understandable given that the interests of the agency is often seen as paramount. Strong vested interests have developed to preserve the allocation of vast resources to the continuing protection of mountains of classified materials.

    The primary secret surrounding the gaseous diffusion barrier material that Oakley is charged with stealing, and attempting to sell, is its fine structure and the process that that went into its manufacture. Many aspects of this technology may already be in the public domain. Its even possible that commercial products now exist using similar techniques. I would like to remind readers that industrial products like teflon, and the field of cryogenics, got a big boost from the Manhattan Project.

    As pointed out by other readers, the damage that might have resulted from the release, of the fragments of the 60+ year old gaseous diffusion barrier tubes, is questionable. The implementation of this technology, for use in producing nuclear weapons, requires a vast national infrastructure and huge quantities of electrical power. This technology path is not reasonable considering the more mature paths that are in existence. Jeffry Lewis mentioned Iraq’s pre-1991 EMIS program. I would like to know how long this program had been in existence, and how much progress they made with it before it was dismantled? Given the number of Iraq Calutrons that were found, and assuming they were producing bomb-grade enriched uranium, at what point would Iraq have created enough material to produce a gun-barrel type A-bomb?

    Oakley’s lawyer, Herb Moncier, characterized the barrier tube fragments as trash. I would like to see more details concerning the planned disposition of this classified material. Had a decision been made that fragmenting the tubes would render them into a declassified form? Were the fragments still considered to be classified material that had to be disposed at a protected classified material waste dump, such as those at the Nevada Test Site? Were the fragments supposed to be rendered into a non-classified form, such as by melting down and casting into nickel ingots? Given the high value of nickel and DOE’s program to find markets for its excess nickel inventory, this later scenario may have been the DOE’s goal. Public concerns, over DOE’s efforts to recycle nickel containing trace levels of radionuclides, may have resulted in alterations to DOE’s nickel disposition plans.

    If the barrier fragments in question had been used in the U-235 enrichment process then I would expect them to contain trace levels of uranium hexafloride unless the material had been very aggressively treated using physical and chemical processes.

    I would like to suggest that the best way to stifle nuclear weapons proliferation is to institute a global ban on all nuclear fission technologies associated with nuclear weapons and other forms of nuclear reactors.

    For readers interested in the subject of over-classification, reclassification and repeated failures to reform the system, the following reference are provided.

    Below are comments by Glenn T. Seaborg, co-discoverer of plutonium, Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission and then Associate Director-at-Large, Ernest Oriando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of California. Here he describes how, after some of his memoirs were declassified, zealous DOE security spooks had re-classified portions, including mentions of a family vacation outing.

    “Secrecy Runs Amok,” Glenn T. Seaborg, Science, Vol. 264, 3 June, 1994, pp. 1410-1411.

    “Secrecy Runs Amok,” Remarks by Glenn T. Seaborg to a DOE Declassification Hearing on 07/28/1995.

    Near the end Dr. Seaborg states ”(w)hy can’t we declassify everything except the minuscule fraction (less than 1% of the total?) of information that is directly related to the design, building, and delivery of nuclear weapons?”

    Below are some comments in regards to Dr. Seaborg’s efforts to draw attention to the broken declassification system.

    Engines of Our Ingenuity
    No. 937 Secrecy
    By John H. Lienhard

    QuickTime audio file of Mr. Lienhard’s talk

    The following report may be the last of a series that began during during the administration of DOE Sec. Hazel O’Leary. Initially, it began with the title “Drawing Back the Curtain of Secrecy. It was created as an effort to show the public that many DOE declassification actions had taken place. After O’Leary left DOE the tide turned around. The declassification action reports became fewer as they were replaced by another series of reports titled Inadvertent Release of Restricted Data and Formerly Restricted Data under Executive Order 12958 (U). The RDD reports no longer show-up when searching the DOE website. Luckily, the Federation of American Scientists, Secrecy in Government Project website maintains a couple of RDD copies.

    The arcane presentations below gives a minimalist description of what’s been declassified followed by the year and order of the declassification action in that year. Sometimes declassification actions were taken because the information had already made it to the public domain and it would look silly to keep it classified. When a declassification action takes place, the information may still exist with within a medium that remains classified. If a member of the public discovers that some information, that they requested be released years before, has been declassified, then that person can request the DOE to extract the declassified data from the other classified matter. In other words, a DOE declassification action does not require the DOE to transmit the declassified data to the requesting person.

    Restricted Data Declassification Decisions 1946 to the Present, (RDD-7) January 1, 2001, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Declassification



    11. Pure and applied chemistry including analytical chemistry of all elements except: (50-3) (50-4)

    k. The production technology of the following substances: deuterium, tritium, special high-purity graphite, fission products, polonium, actinium, thorium metal, uranium metal, the compounds UF6 and UCl4, the isotopes U233 and U235, plutonium and its compounds, and alloys, compounds or mixtures containing fissionable materials intended for use as fuel elements. This includes description of actual manufacturing operations, or reasonable alternates, and laboratory work from which the nature of these operations could be clearly inferred. Amounts of these vital materials less than certain established minimal quantities need not be considered classified.




    1. Techniques of particle size and surface area measurements without reference to barrier construction. This information should be of a scientific character and should not include data from which information could be inferred as to the size of the particles used in barrier construction. (46-1)

    12. The barrier tube length for gaseous diffusion plants. (69-3) —————————————————The Freedom of Information Center‘Secrets’ Perplex Panel By Michael J. Sniffen Washington Post September 3, 2004

    Wired All That Secrecy Is Expensive By Noah Shachman September 27, 2004

    The National Security Archive The George Washington University “Archive Director Testifies Before Congressional Hearing on “Overclassification and Pseudo-classification”March 2, 2005

    The National Security Archive Declassification in Reverse – The U.S. Intelligence Community’s Secret Historical Document Reclassification Program Edited by Matthew M. Aid Posted – February 21, 2006 Decades-old Docs Reclassified Edited by Christian Lowe February 21, 2006

    War Stories: Military Analysis “Secret Again” The Absurd Scheme to Reclassify Documents By Fred Kaplan February 23, 2006

    Seattle Post-Intelligencer – Government is overzealous with secrecy, Reichert says – Republican plans legislation to streamline system By Charles Pope – P-I Washington Correspondent July 25, 2007

    Last of Energy Department’s Openness Team Leaves A tribute on the occasion of Roger K. Heusser’s retirement

    Coalition of Journalists for Open Government