[ RadSafe ] NYT Op-Ed: Where Those Reactors and Centrifuges Came From

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Mon Mar 12 07:17:32 CDT 2007

I thought this is an interesting piece, and thought I
would pass it along.
It is at


March 10, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
Where Those Reactors and Centrifuges Came From 
Aspen, Colo.

THE six-party agreement signed with North Korea last
month should certainly be applauded as a necessary
first step in improving relations with the United
States. While a good deal of the North Korean program
is shrouded in mystery — just this week the United
States again urged the North Koreans to disclose any
uranium-enrichment activities — there are some things
we do know, including the nature and status of the
country’s reactors. 

North Korea’s one functioning reactor, at Yongbyon,
uses natural uranium for fuel and graphite as its
moderator (the substance that slows the neutrons and
enhances the fission reaction). These are the same
ingredients used in the first reactor ever designed,
which was tested by Enrico Fermi at the University of
Chicago in 1942. The best estimate is that Yongbyon
has produced about 100 pounds of plutonium since it
went into full operation in 1990. This is enough for
six to eight nuclear bombs, depending on their design.
(The North Koreans might have used about six kilograms
in their Oct. 9 test.) The construction of the larger
reactors North Korea was building was apparently
already suspended, for various technical reasons,
before the agreement. 

The North Koreans have been fairly transparent about
their reactor program but almost totally opaque about
their program to make natural uranium suitable for
nuclear weapons by using centrifuges. We know that
there is such a program, but we do not know where it
is or how much, if any, uranium it has enriched.
Centrifuges are much easier to hide than reactors.

The provenance of the North Korean centrifuge program
is a useful lesson in nuclear proliferation. One can
trace it back to the spring of 1945, when the Russians
were overrunning Germany. Along with the army came a
cadre of atomic and nuclear physicists who were
looking for both German physicists and metallic

The latter had been made in large quantities — tons —
by the Auer company, a subsidiary of the Degussa
chemical company, in part by using slave labor from
the concentration camps. The Soviets were able to take
home about 300 tons of processed uranium. 

Thanks to espionage, the Soviets knew where to look
and whom to look for. (The United States had a similar
program, called Alsos, that competed for many of the
same people.) The Soviets collected a talented
inventor of electronic devices named Manfred von
Ardenne. He had made a great deal of money and had a
large estate outside Berlin. On it he had a laboratory
with a nuclear program financed by the German Post

In May 1945 the Soviets shipped Dr. von Ardenne east
with some of his colleagues and equipment from his
laboratory. By June he had set up a laboratory,
Institute A, in Sukhumi on the Black Sea in Georgia.
Nearby, another laboratory, Institute G, had been set
up by Gustav Hertz, a German physicist of Jewish
ancestry who had shared the 1925 Nobel Prize in
Physics. Dr. Hertz had been working out of sight at
the Siemens company during the Nazi period. 

The Sukhumi scientists were ordered to find methods of
separating uranium isotopes. Dr. Hertz chose to study
gaseous diffusion. Uranium hexafluoride gas is forced
through tiny pores in a membrane to separate out the
lighter isotope, uranium 235, which is needed for
weapons. Dr. von Ardenne tried separation by using
electromagnetic fields, a technique also used in the
American uranium separation program at Oak Ridge,

A third group, headed by a physicist named Max
Steenbeck, investigated the centrifuge. Dr. Steenbeck,
who had been arrested by the Soviets and put in a
concentration camp in Poland, had previously been in
charge of research for the division of Siemens that
dealt with aircraft. While in captivity he wrote a
letter to the Soviet secret police, the N.K.V.D.,
explaining his scientific background; he also ended up
in Sukhumi. Dr. Steenbeck began with a small group and
some antiquated Soviet centrifuges that certainly
could not have been used to separate uranium isotopes.

In the summer of 1946 they were joined by an Austrian
physicist named Gernot Zippe. Dr. Zippe had been in
the Luftwaffe during the war and, after having been
taken prisoner in the summer of 1946, he went from a
prison camp to the relative luxury of Sukhumi, thanks
to the initiative of Dr. von Ardenne. Neither Dr.
Zippe nor Dr. Steenbeck had ever worked on
centrifuges, but within two years they created the
best centrifuge in the world — although at the time
they did not know it. (To give some idea of its
capacity, a typical laboratory centrifuge makes a few
thousand rotations a minute. The Zippe centrifuge —
this is the common name, although Dr. Zippe himself
refers to it as the “Russian centrifuge” — can do
90,000 rotations a minute.) 

In 1956, Dr. Zippe was allowed to return to Germany.
Although he was not permitted to take any documents
with him, he was able to reconstruct his work, and
began consulting for various companies interested in
centrifuges, including Degussa.

The private German companies, including the part of
Degussa that was doing centrifuges, became
nationalized in 1964. But in 1970 these national
companies became part of an international consortium
called Urenco. The Dutch had a branch in Almelo and,
in 1972, a Pakistani metallurgist named Abdul Qadeer
Khan joined it. Fluent in both Dutch and German, he
was given the job of translating the German centrifuge
plans into Dutch. He became familiar with both the
German and Dutch versions of the Zippe centrifuge. 

In 1974, India successfully tested a nuclear device,
and Pakistan’s president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, put out
a call to all the scientists in the Pakistani diaspora
to return home and help make a bomb. Dr. Khan was one
who answered and he brought with him the stolen plans
for the Zippe centrifuge. This is not the place to go
into the details of Dr. Khan’s activities, which in
the end involved a variety of countries from Libya to
China — to say nothing of Iran, whose centrifuges also
have a Pakistani origin. 

By the 1990s Dr. Khan was exchanging weapons
information with the North Koreans for similar
information about their long-range rockets. We know he
gave them plans for the centrifuge and probably sample
centrifuges. We do not know whether he gave them plans
for a nuclear weapon, as he had done for the Libyans. 

We also do not know to what extent the government of
Pakistan was complicit in this. The army certainly
was, and military aircraft were used to transport
material. Pakistan has denied any involvement; Dr.
Khan is under house arrest and no foreign intelligence
representatives have been allowed to interview him.

The North Koreans have reluctantly admitted that they
have a centrifuge program but have not let any foreign
observers see it. Such a program, if limited, would
have been allowed by the Nuclear Nonproliferation
Treaty. But the North Koreans would have had to
declare it to the International Atomic Energy Agency,
which then would have had the right to inspect it.

This they did not do. Perhaps they enjoy the
ambiguity. My own guess is that if they have an active
program it is relatively small. And while so far the
agreement we have made with them does not say anything
about this program, clearly we must eventually insist
on knowing its extent. The route that led from Soviet
prisoners of war to the centrifuges in North Korea is
so implausible that if one put it in a novel, no one
would believe it.

Jeremy Bernstein is the author of the forthcoming
“Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous

“We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient — that we are only 6 percent of the world’s population; that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind; that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity; and therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”
-- John F. Kennedy 

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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