Which Countries Will Get the Bomb?

As we enter what could be a new age of nuclear proliferation, which countries might succeed in getting a bomb and which might fail?
Scientists inspecting Iraq’s first nuclear reactor in Baghdad, supplied by the Soviets, February 1968

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Scientists inspecting Iraq’s first nuclear reactor in Baghdad, supplied by the Soviets, February 1968

For some years I have been puzzling over the question of why some countries that want nuclear weapons succeed in building them and others don’t. As we enter what could be a new age of proliferation, the question takes on considerable importance. The US has a president-elect who has said he would repeal the Iran deal, which among other things prevents substantial uranium enrichment by Tehran for ten years, and who openly suggested during the campaign that our allies in Asia, and even the Arabian peninsula, take responsibility for their own nuclear deterrence. If, say, South Korea or Saudi Arabia began to pursue a nuclear program, how likely might they be to succeed? 

History offers us a number of insights about this. Among the countries that succeeded in getting the bomb were Israel and South Africa and among those that didn’t were Libya and Iraq. It seemed to me that what the successful countries had in common was both a substantial technological infrastructure and a government that was both determined and permissive. An anecdote I once heard about the Soviet program makes the point. Stalin decided that the program might be better motivated if he appointed the much-feared Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the secret police, to direct it. When Beria decided that some of the nuclear scientists were straying off the ideological reservation he went to Stalin to complain. Stalin allegedly said to him, “You leave my physicists alone. We can shoot them later.”

Among the successful countries, the story of the Israeli-program is well known: they had a very sophisticated scientific establishment and a determined government. The situation in Pakistan is even more striking. About a half dozen physicists using rather primitive computers designed the device and a very determined government backed the production of the fissile elements. And then there is the remarkable case of South Africa.

South Africa’s interest in nuclear technology goes back to the late 1940s. It was realized that the country had a substantial supply of uranium and a large number of trained scientists. The government acquired two reactors and when it began to think about nuclear weapons, the idea was to generate plutonium for them in reactors. This was abandoned in favor of enriching uranium. South African scientists adapted a method—stationary centrifuges—that had never been used on an industrial scale: injecting Uranium hexafluoride gas at very high velocity into a tube with a sharp curve. When the gas goes around the curve the centrifugal force pushes the heavier isotope U238 out, leaving more U235—which is the fissile isotope of uranium, meaning it can be fissioned by neutrons of any energy which is what you need to make an explosive chain reaction.

From this supply of U235, the South Africans amassed enough weapons-grade uranium to produce seven nuclear devices, which were never tested. In 1989 the country abandoned the program and this material was turned over to the International Atomic Energy Agency. One curious aspect of the program was that only whites were allowed to work on it. I am always reminded of Tom Lehrer’s song on proliferation:

South Africa wants two, that’s right.
One for the black and one for the white.

In this case the whites got them all.

So what happened with the failures, Libya and Iraq? A good deal of sporadic reading has long persuaded me that one way or the other both countries had or had acquired sufficient means to pursue a program—in the case of Libya there were financial resources and in the case of Iraq both financial and scientific resources. The Libyans started with almost nothing, but the oil boom enabled them to buy what they needed. Yet both countries had leaders—Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi—whose feelings about these weapons were ambivalent and always secondary to preserving the ideology of the regime. Neither, I assumed, would have had the slightest hesitation to shoot their physicists.

Now there is an excellent new book, Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons, by the Norwegian political scientist Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, that is the most detailed study of these two programs that I have seen. After reading it I think that my general conclusions were right, but the situation was much more nuanced than I had realized. The book is divided into two parts, one on each country. The Libyan story is simpler and the treatment of it is shorter so I will start with that.

One curious feature of the Iraqi and Libyan programs is that both countries had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the case of Libya, this meant that there were sporadic inspections by the IAEA. There was never much to inspect. But Libya’s membership in the NPT also meant something that I was not aware of until I read this book: the IAEA supplied instructors for courses in nuclear physics and engineering. The problem in Libya was that no one showed up for the lectures and the instructors gave up. It is an ineluctable fact that the Libyans never had the remotest chance of making nuclear weapons on their own. They simply did not have scientists with the requisite skills. 


Muammar Gaddafi tried without success to buy a finished weapon from the Chinese and in the late 1990s began going to the black market to acquire the necessary technology. The primary source of this was the Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan. The Libyans bought a package that included centrifuges and the plans for a Chinese nuclear device that had been successfully tested in a rocket. This was supposed to be a “turn key” facility, which would require less special expertise to operate, and which would provide a direct road to nuclear weapons. But the Libyans never could get it to work. Finally in 2003 they gave up and in 2004 Kahn’s package was turned over to the CIA, in exchange for diplomatic recognition.

The situation in Iraq—where the “preemptive” US war was ostensibly fought on the presumption that there was a covert nuclear weapons program in place—was much more complicated. The Iraqis did have scientists with the necessary skills. But here the regime was an impediment. An interesting case is that of Jafar Dhia Jafar. He came from an important Iraqi family and did his scientific studies at the University of Birmingham in England. He would have liked to stay there on the faculty but was turned down and returned to Iraq. He became involved with the Iraqi nuclear program early and was one of its directors. He and his colleagues never fully understood exactly what their mission was, so when one of the secretaries accidentally wrote “Unclear Physics” on the top of a letter, it was adopted as a mantra. Saddam Hussein appointed his son-in-law to direct the program. When Hussein Shahristani, one of the leaders of the program, was arrested and tortured because it was thought that he deviated from Baathist dogma, Jafar tried to come to his defense. Jafar was placed under house arrest while still trying to direct parts of the program.

A crucial moment in the Iraqi program came on July 7, 1981, when the substantial Osirak reactor that had been supplied by the French was destroyed in a daring Israeli air raid. The Israelis already had suspicions about the Iraqi program and there had been assassinations of Iraqi nuclear scientists. (Just as there have been assassinations of Iranian scientists in recent years.) The 1981 raid is often viewed as the reason the Iraqi program was halted. My view is that it was essentially pointless. The worry of the Israelis was that the Osirak reactor was going to produce plutonium. But it is hard to imagine a reactor more poorly designed for that purpose. The fuel was highly enriched uranium—a large percentage of U235—whereas what one wants is a large percentage of U238. The IAEA was present to take possession of the U235, which could have been useful for making bombs. But after the raid the Iraqis gave up the idea of plutonium and Iraqis decided to pursue a clandestine program to enrich uranium. Needless to say A.Q. Khan tried to sell them his package. The Iraqis did not trust him and in any event were not going to use centrifuges. There were other small reactors that also used highly enriched uranium and that had not been destroyed in the Israeli raid. After the 1990–1991 Gulf War in Kuwait, the IAEA removed this uranium and none was diverted.

One may ask if we had not invaded Iraq in 2003 would they have produced a bomb? I think the answer is not obvious. Saddam Hussein’s son-in law was running the program and he had zero technological competence. He was always announcing absurd deadlines. To make him happy the scientists gave him technical reports that he could not understand. But the deeper question is, Did Saddam really want a bomb? I think sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t. What he always wanted was to give the impression that Iraq might get one. In this he seems to have succeeded too well.

Which brings us to the present. Of the various countries that have been mentioned, which might be most likely to succeed? We know North Korea has succeeded. Surely South Korea and Iran could succeed. Saudi Arabia does not at present have enough of a scientific infrastructure, but with their unlimited wealth might try to buy a weapon.


The larger question is whether Trump is serious about abandoning the decades old efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. He has spoken of proliferation as being the greatest danger but does he understand what this means? Given his view if the Iran deal as somehow being financial, one has one’s doubts.

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer’s Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons is published by Cornell University Press.

Give the gift they’ll open all year

Save 50% off the regular rate and 75% off the cover price and receive a free 2021 calendar!