Jeffrey LewisOn Spinning Libyan Centrifuges

In a November 2009 leaked cable, US Embassy Tripoli quoted Saif Ghaddafi  “inquiring about the status of the centrifuges Libya gave up,” with Ghaddafi complaining that “the fact that the centrifuges were sent to the United States and are still there, rather than under IAEA surveillance and control was a ‘big insult to the Leader.'”

In December 2009, DOE officials eventually explained to Ghaddafi that “any centrifuges that were sent to the U.S. were destroyed and could not be could be returned to Libya in their original form.”

Imagine how pissed Ghaddafi would have been if they told him what they actually did with the centrifuges?

We’ve known for some time that part of the processing of analyzing the Libyan centrifuge components involved setting up complete centrifuges and operating them.  In January 2008, I even titled a post, US Spinning Libyan Centrifuges.

We knew because in September 2005, then-Y-12 Plant Manager Dennis Ruddy told Frank Munger that the US was “setting them up and operating them” which isn’t all that ambiguous:

“There’s a lot of interest in the things that we brought back from Libya because of lot of them, looking at them, measuring the tolerances, setting them up and operating them, to a certain extent tells us how close people are to be able to get a system that can work all the way to bomb-grade material.”

Munger thinks that this indiscreet remark might have gotten Ruddy’s clearances pulled.

Munger has been doggedly followed the status of the centrifuges since the Bush Administration did a big show-and-tell in March 2004.  After that, Munger did his best to repeatedly ask about the status of the centrifuges and other components were still at Oak Ridge.  Through August 2008, the answer was either that the equipment was still at Y-12 “awaiting disposition” or that there was “no change” in its status.

Until May 2009, when the answer changed to “no comment.”  That got Frank interested.

Did They Go the UK?

Now we have two sets of claims in reporting about what might have happened to some or all of the equipment, which might explain why Ghaddafi is asking about, and why the US doesn’t really don’t want to talk about it.  I have this image of someone sending snapshots of the centrifuges from their travels around the world, like a purloined garden gnome.

The first claim is one you’ve probably noticed.  In their big article about STUXNET, Bill Broad, John Markoff and David Sanger reported the United States sent some of the equipment to the UK in a failed effort to construct a P1 test bed:

By early 2004, a variety of federal and private nuclear experts assembled by the Central Intelligence Agency were calling for the United States to build a secret plant where scientists could set up the P-1’s and study their vulnerabilities. “The notion of a test bed was really pushed,” a participant at the C.I.A. meeting recalled.

The resulting plant, nuclear experts said last week, may also have played a role in Stuxnet testing.

But the United States and its allies ran into the same problem the Iranians have grappled with: the P-1 is a balky, badly designed machine. When the Tennessee laboratory shipped some of its P-1’s to England, in hopes of working with the British on a program of general P-1 testing, they stumbled, according to nuclear experts.

“They failed hopelessly,” one recalled, saying that the machines proved too crude and temperamental to spin properly.

This was an updating of an earlier story, from 2006 story by Sanger and Broad, which asserted that proposals for a test bed had stalled on the issue of the cost:

The C.I.A. meeting, held on March 18 and 19 of 2004 at the Virginia offices of Science Applications International Corporation, a federal contractor, came just two months after Dr. Khan’s arrest. Its speakers included Dr. Duane F. Starr, an expert on nuclear proliferation at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, a federal complex that specializes in how best to gather intelligence on the use of uranium abroad.

A recommendation of the meeting was that the United States build a secret center where scientists could practice monitoring the kind of first-generation centrifuges sold by Dr. Khan.

”The notion of a test bed was really pushed,” a participant recalled, using the phrase to describe a centrifuge facility where American researchers could conduct surveillance experiments. ”The problem was that it was seen as expensive, really expensive.”

Although the United States obtained some of these centrifuges from Libya after it agreed to end its nuclear program, it is not known whether the government has used them as part of a testing facility.

In the later story, Broad, Markoff and Sanger cite “nuclear experts” to confirm that some of the components were shipped to the UK, where no one could get them to spin.  (Recall that the story asserts Israel set up a similar test bed at Dimona.)

The location isn’t all that surprising.  URENCO maintains a facility at Capenhurst, which would be an obvious candidate to set up a P1 test bed. Although the Broad, Markoff and Sanger story claims that the United States had “a cache of P-1’s,” what the United States had was a cache of components and a small number of complete P1s (probably 20). With few complete centrifuges, the United States would probably need assistance from URENCO to fabricate complete sets of P1 components to populate a test facility.

Maybe Some Ended Up In The Netherlands?

There is a second version relating to the disposition of the components.  According to Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins in Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking, the US sent some components, rather than full centrifuges, to the Netherlands (rather than the UK) for testing — in late 2003, before the alleged meeting at SAIC. In this version, URENCO is able to determine that the components had not been sabotaged by Urs Tinner, and work just fine:

Several months earlier [in late 2003], Edwards had arranged for the Americans to ship sample components from the stockpile of Libyan materials to Urenco’s plant in the Netherlands.  There the components were run through a battery of diagnostics and tests to determine if they had been truly sabotaged. The results indicated that Urs Tinner was either lying about what he had done or that his attempts at sabotage had not been effective. The Urenco scientists had reported back to the IAEA that the components functioned, though they might not last forever.

It is possible that these are two separate stories — the United States sent some components to the Netherlands for diagnostic testing, which revealed the components were not faulty, then followed up the recommendation to set up a test bed and found that even with decent components, spinning P1s is no walk in the park.

Or maybe the stories are hopelessly muddled.  Maybe the US simply sent some components to the UK to be tested with additional components from the Netherlands?  Who knows?

Munger Persists

Meanwhile, Frank Munger continues to persistently inquire about the status of the centrifgues and other components, which he lightheartedly calls Libya’s “stuff” and “nuclear luggage.” The sudden “no comment” in May 2009 piqued Munger’s interest, so he asked again in August 2010.

“I had some indication that I might get a little meatier response to my questions,” Munger writes.  “I asked a question on Aug. 5 and for several months, when I would follow-up on the status of my question, I was told by Steven Wyatt, a federal spokesman at Y-12, that it was still being actively reviewed. My impression, rightly or not, was that other agencies were involved in the budding response.”

During this period, the New York Times disclosed that some of the equipment had been sent to the UK.  Wyatt finally e-mailed Munger with his long awaited response:

“Frank, regarding your question regarding Libya, we have no comment.”


  1. FSB (History)

    Good reason for other nations to not do what Libya did then, eh?

  2. OT (History)

    But starving NK is running them by thousands in hastily constructed facility. In “ultramodern” fashion. How embarassing for CIA & co. for not being up to such a trivial task.

  3. Barmak (History)

    Poor Gaddafi! He was conned in to buying useless junk from Pakistan, then he donated it to US, in exchange for the promise of US support, but then US reneged on its promise. US never improved relations with Muammar as they had promised. Now Libyans are protesting to get rid of Gaddafi. What a shame. It’s almost as hurtful as watching the downfall of Mubarak.

    I hope at least some good came out of this. Maybe US eventually managed to run those centrifuges and develop computer viruses which they would export to Iran, in hopes of destroying old of piece of junk centrifuges (btw, doesn’t US break its own anti-Iran sanctions when they export computer programs to Iran?)

  4. Yossi (History)

    The Iranians seem to have excellent techies, they manage to work with P-1 centrifuges and spin most of them…