WASHINGTON -- When the word first hit the scientific community a few months ago, it was all some physicists could do to keep from laughing. Iraq, it seemed, had been trying to whip up enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon by using a technological dinosaur known as a calutron.
To the Nobel laureates who had cut their teeth on such stuff, the idea was almost quaint, and almost certainly preposterous. Sure, the calutron had been a mainstay nearly a half-century earlier in the Manhattan Project, jump-starting efforts to produce the world's first atomic bomb. But it is a bulky machine that gulps electricity and gives little in return -- the creaky old jalopy of a dawning nuclear age.
A few days later, the snickering stopped. Further word showed that Iraq's old jalopy had been souped up with the latest in computer technology and precision equipment. Instead of being five to 10 years away from building a nuclear weapon, as the United States had estimated before the Persian Gulf war, Iraq was only a year away, United Nations inspectors concluded.
But even more worrisome was this: For all Iraq's ingenuity in refining the calutron technique, basic calutron technology is declassified, and some authorities think that the Iraqi exercise will provide an example for other countries aspiring to join the exclusive nuclear arms club. "I think we have to worry now that the North Koreans might try this, and the Iranians," said Leonard Spector, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a leading authority on nuclear proliferation.
Mr. Spector made that remark in an interview several weeks ago, and it proved prophetic when U.S. officials confirmed that Iran appeared to be working on its own calutrons, apparently with the help of China.
The calutron surprise is one of many lessons learned from the dismantling of the Iraqi nuclear program. Experts around the world are now assessing the blind spots that allowed much of the Iraqi program to remain hidden. They are also pondering anew which country might be next in line to build a bomb, and they are scrambling to find better ways to thwart such efforts.
As with any would-be nuclear nation, Iraq expended its greatest efforts trying to obtain the enriched uranium needed for a bomb -- the "critical mass" necessary for unleashing the horrific energy of an uncontrolled chain reaction. Once that is achieved, the other steps, while still requiring great expertise, are comparatively simple.
Iraq's nuclear program probably began in the mid-1970s, but the impetus for its expansion came in 1981 when low-flying Israeli jets in a surprise raid destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor, the centerpiece of the Iraqi program. Iraq then redoubled its efforts, and recent U.N. inspections have shown that by the time the war began in January, Iraq was working to enrich uranium at least three ways: with the surprising calutrons, which extract high-grade uranium from lesser stuff by using large electromagnets; with centrifuges, which whirl high-grade uranium out of gases in high-speed cylinders; and by chemical extraction.
The Iraqis were also working on an implosion technique used to set off a chain reaction in a nuclear weapon and a missile program to carry the weapon to its target. But because of the Osirak setback, Iraq's drive for secrecy was as strong as its drive for success. The country hoodwinked the world's most sophisticated spy satellites and intelligence networks.
Nuclear sites camouflaged
Part of the reason the intelligence community was fooled is that "we weren't looking for it," said Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a Washington-based research organization. U.S. intelligence resources in the Middle East were more worried about neighboring Iran, and most satellites passing over that part of the world were guided into orbits crossing the Soviet Union.
Even after the gulf war began, extra satellite overflights failed to detect major pieces of the Iraqi program. David Kay, leader of the first six of the United Nations' postwar nuclear inspection teams, discovered several reasons why.
At the twin calutron facilities at Tarmiya and Al-Sharqat, he said, the huge electrical cables that might have given away the purpose of the site were buried in tunnels leading several miles to a power plant. Tarmiya also employed large "absolute filters" that screened any possibly irradiated particles from outgoing air. Such particles might have been detected by satellites or by sensors in neighboring countries. Both facilities were laid out in odd configurations -- a sacrifice of efficiency for the sake of subterfuge.
U.S. analysts might have missed the pattern anyway, Mr. Kay said, because they went about their work as if Iraq were a poor nation with little technological expertise. "People were looking for pieces as if it were Pakistan, as if it were Argentina," he said, "and here the guy [Saddam Hussein] was spending so much money that it was more like . . . the Manhattan Project." In the end, only the help of a few postwar defectors from Iraq led inspectors to several of Iraq's larger facilities.
Help from many nations
Another blind spot was a lack of export controls, allowing Iraq to amass needed equipment and technology "from pretty much all over the world," said Hans Blix, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The IAEA is still poring over 45,000 pages of documents seized by inspectors in September. From that, the agency hopes to piece together a clearer picture of exactly how Iraq acquired each piece of its nuclear puzzle. The equipment itself offered few clues because serial numbers had been filed off and packing crate labels painted over. But much had already been documented about outside help, some of it possibly illegal.
A report in July by Cameron Binkley of the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies listed 24 foreign firms engaged in "illicit nuclear weapons trade" with Iraq. One of the 12 German firms, for example, H & H Metalform GmbH, allegedly delivered special machinery to Iraq used in uranium enrichment and reportedly agreed to establish a manufacturing plant in Iraq. The German government is investigating.
Iraq also got U.S. help, particularly in electronics, though many documented transactions were sales to European firms that in turn sold to Iraq or to dummy corporations set up by Iraq. A study by Mr. Milhollin found that the U.S. Department of Commerce licensed the export of more than $1.5 billion worth of "sensitive items" to Iraq. Much of it was the sort of "dual use" item capable of helping make nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.
Pending legislation in both houses of Congress would tighten U.S. export controls, and the 26-nation Nuclear Supplier Group is dickering over its own restrictions. But the Commerce Department opposes such control, saying it's none of Congress' business. Others oppose the controls on philosophical grounds, saying that restricting the flow of sophisticated technology that might have many applications is an extension of colonialism.
But the United States also contributed know-how and education. In 1989, for example, three Iraqi scientists attended an Oregon symposium on explosives technology, which included the sort of information necessary to detonate a nuclear weapon. Their participation was supposed to have been screened by the government, which could have prevented them from attending, but wasn't.
Even if tighter export controls are adopted, the Iraq experience showed that there will always be rogue suppliers from among the world's nine nations with nuclear arms capability. China, which has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has long been cited as a culprit.
A declassified U.S. Army intelligence document released in July concluded that China had done a 1986 feasibility study on building a nuclear power plant in Iraq by 1990, with specifications providing for "defensibility of area from possible attacks" and "ability to camouflage from satellites." China is also believed to have helped Pakistan enrich uranium and design a bomb, has trained North Korean scientists in nuclear technology and is helping Algeria build a high-powered nuclear reactor. Last Monday, China acknowledged that it recently sold nuclear equipment to Iran but insisted that it was for peaceful purposes.
Mr. Spector of the Carnegie endowment suspects that several outside sources -- including China -- will be implicated by the Iraqi documents being examined, particularly in the cases of certain uranium extraction technologies. Iraq apparently got access to "blueprints of some very sophisticated machinery that was supposed to be secret," he said.
A new addition to the pile of worries about rogue suppliers is the Soviet Union's nuclear program. With the central government in disarray and with many physicists facing unemployment, analysts fear that some may slip away to the highest bidder. Particularly troubling is Libya. Rolf Ekeus, head of the U.N. Special Commission for destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, said that a high-level Soviet official told him recently of past cases in which Soviets were "tempted by the large amounts of money that Libya was offering."
International watchdog weak
But of all the blind spots evident in the monitoring of Iraq, the greatest is the IAEA itself, which before the war inspected Iraqi sites twice a year without finding the nuclear weapons program.
The reasons for the failure are simple. First, no other nation, the United States included, has offered intelligence to the IAEA, leaving the agency to depend on the honesty of inspected nations. Even if the agency sensed suspicious information, it has little power to follow up with a "challenge inspection" of a suspect site. The agency wants to plug those holes by beginning to share intelligence and by adding the power for challenge inspections. The U.N. Security Council would have the final say in case a host nation refused.
Those changes should be decided by mid-February, and an early challenge of the new powers could come in Iran, where new work on calutrons is suspected.
But all this will take extra money and manpower. Last year the IAEA made 2,190 inspections on a budget of $60 million, a quarter of which is paid by the United States. The budget hasn't increased in eight years. Additional inspectors and extra personnel for analyzing intelligence would require at least $6 million more, officials say.
If the new controls go into effect, the IAEA's Mr. Blix is confident that nuclear weapons won't spread further, and he describes Iraq's near-success as a "special case."
Others disagree. "It seems an extremely tortuous argument to say that the system works well and Iraq is the exception," said Daniel Horner, acting director of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute. "How do you know that the same thing is not going on somewhere else? It's sort of like saying, 'Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?'"
But even if the Iraqi example is a special case for the moment, it is likely to be imitated, Mr. Spector said. The Iraqi pattern of multiple technologies for uranium enrichment, clandestine acquisitions of key blueprints and equipment, indigenous manufacturing and home-grown but internationally educated scientific talent is "the wave of the future," Mr. Spector said. "This is the way things are happening, and it isn't just Iraq."