Monday, June 23, 2008

Nuclear scare stories

'Revelations' that certain countries are close to getting the bomb should be treated with caution

By Chris Ames, Monday June 23, 2008

"Recent reports that blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapon could have been sold to "some of the most treacherous regimes in the world" are pretty frightening. But is there less to the story than meets the eye? It seems the only thing really new is the suggestion that the designs are for a bomb small enough to suit Iran's requirements - so is the story more about politics than proliferation?

The New York Times and Washington Post published a draft report by former UN weapons inspector David Albright, which said the bomb plans were found on the computers of the Swiss family Tinner, associates of "disgraced" nuclear trader AQ Khan. The next day Albright published his report, which apparently includes information from his former colleagues at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It's not clear who leaked the story, which as a result became sexier. But the New York Times had spoken to US intelligence officials, who said off the record that they didn't know whether, let's say, Iran had acquired the designs.......

Certainly, the revelations follow reports that Khan might be released from the house arrest he has been under since 2004. Albright says Khan should be interrogated about the plans. This seems reasonable but Pakistan has refused on the grounds that he knows too much about its own bomb. It says the Khan case is closed. Meanwhile, the US is said to be warning Pakistan not to release him. Khan, who has been speaking to the media quite a lot lately, has denied the claims and alleged that Albright's study is funded by the CIA.

No one is saying it's not a problem if designs for advanced nuclear weapons can be copied and passed around the world. It is indeed a worrying possibility. It's just that it isn't always clear what is behind claims that certain countries are closer to getting the bomb than we thought – and journalists don't always ask. There has been a tendency in the past to sex-up these claims and "military action" has been the result."

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