By Paul L. Leventhal and Edwin S. Lyman
WASHINGTON--Iraq's nuclear weapons program, supposedly destroyed in the rubble of the 1991 Gulf war, may be far from dead.
New insights into the threat were provided last summer by Saddam Hussein's son-in-law and former nuclear weapons chief, Lieutenant General Hussein Kamel Hassan, soon after he fled to Jordan. He disclosed that, right after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, he ordered a crash program to recover bomb-grade uranium from French and Russian-supplied civilian nuclear fuel by the following April.
Embarrassed Iraqi officials confirmed the disclosure and gave UN inspectors a 198-page document and more than 100 trunks of records and items describing the bomb program that General Kamel had directed.
Hans Blix, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, responded by reporting to the UN Security Council that "no safeguarded fuel was diverted'' and that Iraq's "crash program would have involved a blatant and readily detectable violation'' of his agency's safeguards.
Recently he told the lAEA's board of governors that "nothing suggests that a change is warranted in the agency's conclusion that Iraq's nuclear weapons program has been, for all practical purposes, destroyed, removed, or rendered harmless."
Mr. Blix is avoiding both the truth and the consequences.
First, he covered up the fact that his agency failed to detect Iraq's removal of most of the bomb-grade fuel from safeguarded research reactors before the Gulf war began in January 1991.
Reports by the UN special commission on Iraq make clear that Iraq not only hid the fuel, but refused to give it up until several months after the war---and then with the ends of two fuel assemblies mysteriously sawed off.
Second, Mr. Blix fails to acknowledge the likelihood that Iraqis are once again misleading his inspectors about the extent of Iraq's capabilities in nuclear weapons development.
The key question for today is this: if Iraq embarked on a crash program to remove and convert its bomb-grade reactor fuel into weapons components, what does that say about how far Iraq actually was, and still may be, toward building a bomb
The IAEA was inspecting Iraqi sites twice a year, despite guidance by its own outside experts that most of Iraq's bomb-grade fuel could have been converted into bomb parts within one to three weeks. Iraq needed to complete fuel conversion and build a weapon between November 1990 (when inspectors last visited Iraq and found all the fuel in place) and May 1991 (when the next inspection was due). IAEA officials now insist that Iraq faced a daunting 12 to 18 months to prepare the bomb fuel, but a leading U.S. government expert told us the task was "peanuts--- a good undergraduate lab exercise.''
To avoid getting caught red-handed, Iraq needed to have all the non-nuclear components for its bomb ready to assemble as soon as the nuclear components were ready. Otherwise it faced a likely military response to the missing fuel assemblies without having a nuclear weapon to deter it. But no nuclear-weapon components have ever been found, despite records obtained after the war showing that Iraq had been working on and testing them.
Also, Iraq maintains the same nuclear expertise it had before the Gulf war. The UN cease-fire resolution required destruction of all remaining nuclear facilities, but it was silent on the status of Iraqi nuclear scientists and engineers--- and they are still in place.
The situation today should be seen as ominous even though the Gulf war interrupted Iraq's crash bomb program and all the diverted bomb-grade fuel was eventually recovered and removed.
The latest Iraqi document traces the bomb program to mid- 1991, six months after the Gulf war. An IAEA official acknowledges that it reveals "remarkable progress" on the key component of the bomb, the chemical high explosive charge needed to uniformly squeeze the nuclear core to achieve a nuclear explosion.
Mr. Blix's assurances notwithstanding, it is folly to assume that Iraqi scientists are not still secretly perfecting and testing this and other non-nuclear components of a bomb.
Iraq may lack only the nuclear material (plutonium and bomb- grade uranium) to rapidly assemble nuclear weapons. Advances in bomb design would enable Iraq to make several weapons out of a given amount of material that previously was enough for only one.
Given the Iraqis' extensive contacts with their original Russian and French benefactors, and the growing evidence of an ' emerging black market in nuclear materials, the Iraqi nuclear threat could spring to life at any time.
To prevent this, the first step is for the IAEA to acknowledge the danger. The next is for the U.S government to promote further defections from Iraq's nuclear team and place a far higher priority than now on curbing civilian use of, and illicit traffic in, bomb-grade uranium and plutonium.
Mr. Leventhal is president and Mr. Lyman scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute.