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Excerpt: 'Peddling Peril'

Book Cover: Peddling Peril by David Albright

Chapter One

Out of the Cold

December 1975 was a busy time at the tiny single terminal at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. Amid the holiday travelers was a young man traveling with his wife and two small daughters. To any casual observer, this handsome, personable man appeared no different from any of the other harried vacationers and tourists.

In fact, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan was fleeing to Pakistan, having pulled off history's most dangerous act of nuclear espionage.

Khan was "coming out of the cold" just as Dutch authorities were growing suspicious of his activities in the fall of 1975. A pioneer in nuclear smuggling who laid the foundation for pariah governments to acquire nuclear weapons, the Pakistani scientist was an unlikely spy. Born in 1936 into an educated Muslim family of military men, magistrates, and teachers, Khan's middle-class childhood (he loved ice hockey, fishing, and kite flying) ended with the political and religious turmoil created by Indian independence. With the partition of the South Asian subcontinent in 1947, the large Muslim minority in his home state of Bhopal found itself part of Hindu-dominated India.

His older brothers and sisters left for the safe haven of Pakistan. Abdul Qadeer stayed behind to finish high school. At sixteen, he headed to Karachi to join his siblings, making the hard journey alone, first by train, then barefoot across a four-mile stretch of desert that burned blisters on his feet.

Reunited with his family, he pursued his dream of becoming a teacher like his father, earning a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics. After a brief turn as an inspector of weights and measures, Khan left in 1961 to study at the Technical University of Berlin, then to the Netherlands to study engineering at the Delft Technological University. The engaging, charismatic Khan developed close relationships with his professors and classmates wherever he studied, making international connections that would serve him well during his rise to notoriety.

It was also in the Netherlands that Khan met and married a Dutch woman named Hendrina Reterink in March 1964. Khan was a devoted family man who enjoyed making dinner for his wife and, later, his two young daughters, cooking pilaf, kebabs, meat curry, and parathas, a flatbread fried in butter. His neighbors and colleagues were fond of Khan, an avid street volleyball player. One friend recalled that he was "a great source of pleasure in all social gatherings."

In 1965, while he was studying in Holland, war broke out between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a dispute that ended in a stalemate. Deeply disturbed by a documentary he saw that blamed Pakistan for the conflict, Khan embarked on a solitary letter-writing campaign to Dutch newspapers to set the record straight. His letter-writing skills would ultimately prove to be a catalyst that changed both Khan's and Pakistan's future.

In 1971, a pivotal year for Khan, he obtained a doctorate in metallurgy from the University of Leuven in Belgium, and war broke out again between India and Pakistan. When Pakistan was created in 1947, its eastern and western halves were separated by thousands of miles of Indian territory. Growing pressures in East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh, for greater autonomy from West Pakistan triggered a bloody crackdown by the army. Millions of East Pakistani refugees streamed into India to escape the violence and the destruction caused the previous year by the Bhola cyclone, the deadliest tropical cyclone on record. Televised images of the utter devastation, along with George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971, led to an outpouring of support for Bangladesh. For Khan, though, the portrayal of his countrymen as murderers embittered him toward the West.

Further humiliation arrived when Pakistan's army was routed in December 1971. The Indo-Pakistani war lasted two weeks, culminating with the mass surrender of Pakistan's army and the loss of East Pakistan in the face of rapidly advancing Indian troops. Khan and his fellow countrymen had believed that they were a martial race — "one Pakistani can handle ten Indians." This myth had survived the 1965 stalemate, but the loss in 1971 created an identity crisis for both Pakistan and Khan.

In May 1972, Khan and his family moved to Zwanenburg, a quiet Amsterdam suburb, and he began a new job at a technical consulting firm, Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory [ Fysisch Dynamisch Onderzoek-Technische Adviseurs] (FDO). FDO was part of Werkspoor Amsterdam, an important private contractor to the secretive Ultra-Centrifuge Nederland (UCN). UCN controlled all Dutch gas centrifuge work and was a partner with British and German companies in the URENCO uranium enrichment consortium. Founded in 1971, URENCO combined the resources of countries with the ambition to build commercial gas centrifuge facilities but without the sufficient funding to do so alone. These gas centrifuges produce low enriched uranium for nuclear reactors, but could also be used to make highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. HEU was the fissile material used in the "Little Boy" bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Compared to other methods, a gas centrifuge plant is one of the cheapest ways to produce HEU for nuclear weapons. The core of a centrifuge is an ingeniously designed rapidly rotating tube, or "rotor," in which uranium gas spins. The spinning separates the lighter, rare isotope uranium-235 from the more plentiful and less useful uranium-238. In nature, uranium contains less than one percent uranium-235. When centrifuges increase the fraction of uranium-235 in the uranium to a level of 3 or 4 percent, the enriched material can be used in nuclear reactors. When the fraction of uranium-235 exceeds 20 percent, it is called HEU and is usable in nuclear explosives. Bomb makers typically want HEU enriched to at least 80 to 90 percent uranium-235, because at that level the bomb will need far less of it. A crude nuclear weapon requires several hundred kilograms of 20 percent enriched mate­rial, but needs only 15 to 20 kilograms of HEU enriched to 90 percent uranium-235, commonly called weapon-grade uranium. If the weapon must be small enough to fit under an aircraft or on top of a ballistic missile, the amount of HEU used matters.

Excerpted from Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies by David Albright. Copyright 2010 by The Institute for Science and International Security. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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David Albright