Paul KerrMore on North Korea and Libya

The NYT and WP stories are obviously describing two different intelligence methods, but the two don’t seem to exclude one another. Put together, they are perhaps compelling.

Perhaps. Some relevant questions/comments:

1.When was the UF6 produced and shipped to Libya? Where did it come from? Who shipped it?

I wrote in ACT:

[According to the IAEA,] Libya used Khan’s network to acquire two …shipments of uranium hexafluoride in September 2000 and February 2001.

[snip]

A report earlier this year from Malaysia’s inspector general of police stated that, according to U.S. and British intelligence officials, uranium hexafluoride was shipped from Pakistan to Libya in 2001. Additionally, [an IAEA official told ACT that] the IAEA has “uncorroborated information,” but no “proof,” that North Korea may have supplied Libya with nuclear material.

The Post says that the UF6 containers had traces of North Korean plutonium. That may prove the containers were in North Korea, but it doesn’t prove that the UF6 came from there. The UF6 may have been produced in another country, even if the natural uranium came from North Korea.

The IAEA’s Iran investigation illustrates the difficulty of unraveling networks like A.Q. Khan’s. We now know that centrifuge components Tehran obtained through the Khan network changed hands more than once before arriving in Iran. This is relevant because the IAEA initially had a hard time determining the source of enriched uranium particles found on those components. (The investigation is still incomplete- details here).

Now, the Times story does trace the UF6 back to North Korea, but how reliable is the intelligence method the article describes (e.g. process of elimination, tracking U-234, etc.)? What kind of samples do you need from a country in order to make an identification? Is natural uranium enough, or do the samples need to come from uranium compounds (e.g. UF6?).

[Note: Tonight’s Nelson Report has some devastating quotes concerning this accuracy of this method.]

2. It is true that a North Korean UF6 production capability would tell us something about Pyongyang’s ability to produce feedstock for a uranium enrichment program. But we knew that North Korea’s fuel fabrication facility could produce UF4 and former Clinton administration official Gary Samore was confident enough to tell Nuclear Fuel in September 2003 that ”’‘North Korea could probably start making hex [UF6] fairly quickly.”

And remember that the intelligence about the centrifuge program remains sketchy.

3.The DoD official who told the Times that this intelligence finding “changes the whole equation with the North” and “we don’t have time to sit around and wait for the outcome of negotiations” is wrong. These findings point to past North Korean behavior, not present. And Libyan receipt of this material is hardly a crisis, since Tripoli’s nuclear weapons program has been shut down. We already knew to be wary of North Korean nuclear exports

4. Big Picture: Details aside, this episode points to the danger of letting the North Korean nuclear crisis persist. Negotiations remain Washington’s best option.

Comments

  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    “The Post says that the UF6 containers had traces of North Korean plutonium. That may prove the containers were in North Korea, but it doesn’t prove that the UF6 came from there. The UF6 may have been produced in another country, even if the natural uranium came from North Korea.”

    Good point. I also agree with your point 3. To pick a nit here that may not be unimportant, was it the containers that tested for the presence of plutonium, or the contents? I can’t be sure from the Post story.

    “Now, the Times story does trace the UF6 back to North Korea, but how reliable is the intelligence method the article describes (e.g. process of elimination, tracking U-234, etc.)? What kind of samples do you need from a country in order to make an identification? Is natural uranium enough, or do the samples need to come from uranium compounds (e.g. UF6?).”

    The Times story points out the uncertainties. The process of elimination is the diciest. As I suggested at WhirledView, samples with U-234 content that doesn’t match country standards could have come from Soviet processing plants, where, say, Hungarian, Czechoslovak, and Kazakh ore might have been mixed together. If the uranium hasn’t been through a reactor or enrichment, the isotopic makeup remains unchanged.

    I strongly disagree that “the two don’t seem to exclude one another.” For my argument on this, see the WV post. I find this the most interesting aspect of this story: For a change, the science in both stories is reported in a way that seems reasonably accurate, and not garbled versions of a single story.

    One possible interpretation: two samples with different provenances were analyzed by two labs. The Times mentions Oak Ridge, but the Post doesn’t mention a specific laboratory.

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