He Changed History

This test was what motivated President Truman to announce five months later that the US was initiating a crash program to build a more powerful weapon, a hydrogen bomb. But Fuchs had also transmitted Edward Teller’s design for a hydrogen bomb to the Russians in 1946. This persuaded them that they too should begin working on a hydrogen bomb, and Truman’s announcement made them absolutely determined to have one. We can thank Fuchs for the race to build the hydrogen bomb—more evidence for Bethe’s judgment about him. But Bethe, who died in 2005, lived long enough to see how another nuclear physicist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, also changed history.

Khan was born in 1936 in Bhopal, India. Following the partition the family moved to the newly created state of West Pakistan. Khan took his undergraduate degree in metallurgy from the D.J. Sindh College of Science in 1960. He then pursued graduate studies in Europe, taking his Ph.D. from the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, after spending four years studying metallurgy in Holland—always metallurgy. I have never been able to determine precisely what his scientific competence is, but he is clearly a gifted linguist. During his studies he learned German and Dutch. In 1972, the year he received his Ph.D., he got a job in the Dutch offices of URENCO, a newly formed international consortium dedicated to manufacturing centrifuge technology that joined together enterprises in Britain, Germany, and Holland. Khan became the interpreter of technical and highly classified documents between German and Dutch.

In 1974, the Indian government tested its first nuclear device—the Smiling Buddha—and Pakistan became desperate to have its own bomb. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was then prime minister of Pakistan, said he would build a bomb even if it meant that the population would have to eat grass. Khan, living in Holland, may not have known of this, but he decided that he was in a position to help if there was a Pakistani attempt to build a bomb. So he wrote to Bhutto, whom he did not know at all, offering his services. While in Pakistan for a holiday, he was then given an audience with Bhutto, who immediately put him in charge of a program aimed at using centrifuges to enrich uranium to levels sufficient for a bomb. He returned to Holland soon after to gather more information, and by the time he came back to Pakistan for good in 1975, he had stolen the essential designs and parts of the URENCO centrifuge technology.

I think that it is fair to say that at first Khan’s motives were patriotic. He wanted desperately for Pakistan to have the bomb. But it was not long before his megalomania took over. He identified himself with the Pakistani bomb and he seemed to think he could sell any parts or technology associated with the program that he wanted. (Whatever one may think of Fuchs, he was not venal. He indignantly …

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What A.Q. Khan Really Did May 28, 2009