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The History of Saddam's Nuclear Weapons Program

Updated on October 24, 2016
Lloyd Busch profile image

Lloyd Busch is the author of "Passive Resistance", a book on non-violent action, and has been published in the "Journal of Theoretics".

Saddam's Obsession With WMD

“Imagine the consequences if Saddam fails to comply and we fail to act. Saddam will be emboldened, believing the international community has lost its will. He will rebuild his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. And some day, some way, I am certain, he will use that arsenal again, as he has ten times since 1983.”—Sandy Berger, President Clinton's National Security Adviser, Town Hall Meeting on Iraq at Ohio State University, February 18, 1998.

This fact is one which everybody agrees or should I say knows is true, I use the term everybody in reference to all sane people since in this day and age there seems to be no shortage of conspiracy nuts and many uniformed, to politically put it, people today. Saddam Hussein has had a significant stockpile of WMD and has used them against his enemies and against his own citizens, this is not hearsay, this is not an opinion, it is a fact. Undeniable, incontrovertible, and irrefutable. Under Saddam Hussein Iraq developed chemical and biological weapons as well as an advanced nuclear weapons program and possessed one of the most advanced missile programs of the Arab world.

In the decade before Desert Storm Iraq had invested more resources in its WMD programs than any other developing country i. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was aware of Iraq's chemical weapons program at least as far back as 1980 when the DIA filed a report of Iraq's CW program ii. We'll begin with the Iraqi nuclear program. “We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction.”—Sen. Ted Kennedy (D, MA), September 27, 2002.

iNuclear Threat Initiative,

iiMark Phythian (1997). Arming Iraq: How the U.S. and Britain Secretly Built Saddam's War Machine. Northeastern University Press, 73-74.

An Iraqi ZIL-135 FROG-7


Saddam's Nuclear Program

In the 1950's Iraq established its nuclear program under the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC). Iraqi pursuit of WMD began as far back as 1959 when the USSR and Iraq signed an agreement to build an atomic power station. The nuclear co-operation agreement signed with the Soviet Union included a nuclear research center equipped with a research reactor which was constructed at Tuwaitha, eventually becoming Iraq's main nuclear research center. The reactor was operational until 1991. Although very little progress or interest was showed in WMD until Saddam came to power. In 1968 Russia supplied Iraq with a IRT-2000 research reactor and several other facilities at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center capable of producing radioisotopesi. Iraq was greatly influenced by the book “The Israeli Bomb?” which described the Israeli nuclear weapons program. Saddam wanted to build an Iraqi nuclear arsenal that would rival the Israeli weapons.

The 1970's saw Iraq's oil revenues surge greatly. With huge oil revenues Saddam could begin to build what would become the fourth largest military in the world with an expensive and advanced WMD and missile programs. As Vice-President Saddam, in the early 1970's, issued direct orders for the creation of a nuclear weapons program.ii This order called for the establishment of a civilian nuclear program involving a civilian fuel-cycle program to allow the development of expertise in the area of nuclear technology, the weapons program would then branch off on the civilian program as a parallel civilian/weapons program once the expertise and industrial support was sufficient. In 1971 a group of scientists submitted a 40 page outline to develop a nuclear weapon which would cost several hundred million dollars. During the 70's Iraq acquired two research reactors powered by HEU fuel along with equipment for fuel fabrication and handling. In the 1970's Iraq contracted French and Italian firms with the IAEC to build facilities at Tuwaitha which could have produced plutonium for a weapons program once operational.

Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)

To produce an nuclear weapon Iraq needed the Highly Enriched Uranium or plutonium for the weapon so Iraq sought to acquire a research reactor to produce the plutonium. This work was done clandestinely to prevent IAEA inspections. To fill this need Iraq contacted the French to build a research reactor able to produce plutonium. Before Saddam left for Paris to negotiate the building of the Osirak reactor he told the Lebanese news magazine “Al-Usbu al-Arabi” that the agreement with France was “the first concrete step toward the production of the Arabic atomic weapon” while requesting help in his quest to obtain a nuclear weapon. Once operational the Osirak reactor could have produced up to 25kg of plutonium a year. Iraq's nuclear ambitions had not gone unnoticed though, the reactor cores for the Osirak and Isis reactors were damaged by sabotaged while waiting for shipment in a French Mediterranean town. The cores would have taken two years to rebuild though Iraq accepted the damaged cores with hairline fractures. These cores would have posed an extreme danger once operational and shows Saddam's disregard for the safety of his own people. After completing negotiations for the Osirak reactor Iraq then contracted an Italian firm to build a pilot plutonium separation facility and a uranium refining facility, both outside of IAEA safeguards.

Iraq's first major achievement was in 1975 when Paris agreed to sell 72 kg of 93% enriched uranium and to build an atomic power station that would not operate under the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)iii. Let's take a closer look at that, consider this, a huge supporter of Iraq, the USSR, refused to build the same plant because it would not be regulated by the IAEA. The French governments morals are highly questionable upon this point, they knew well that any plant that would not be regulated by the IAEA served only one conceivable purpose, for the production of weapons grade nuclear fuel. Fortunately this achievement also brought with it a major setback in Iraq's nuclear program. An Israeli air strike destroyed the reactor in June of 1981, while this strike proved successful it drove Iraq's nuclear program underground in the form of other clandestine methods in an attempt to enrich uranium. France later built a turnkey factory to produce nuclear fuel while Italy supplied plutonium extraction facilities which greatly advanced Iraq's nuclear weapons program. In 1988 German engineers gave Iraq centrifuge data which was used in their nuclear weapons program. Italy supplied plutonium extraction facilities which greatly aided Iraq's NWP. Iraq began importing large amounts of uranium ore from Portugal, Nigeria, and Brazil.

Between 1979 to 1982 Italy supplied Iraq with depleted, natural, and low enriched uranium. Also between these years Iraq purchased large quantities of uranium including uranium yellowcake and uranium dioxide from several different countries. Brazil, without notifying the IAEA, secretly supplied Iraq with natural uranium dioxide in 1981 and 1982. Swiss companies supplied specialized equipment for use in their NWP including equipment used to process uranium into weapons grade. America is not without a shadow, the States supplied $500 million worth of dual-use exports to Iraq. Included in this were advanced computers that were later used in Iraq's NWP. Austria supplied calutrons for enriching uranium. Portugal provided yellowcake uranium ( Yellowcake is a uranium concentrate which has been obtained by leaching, its essentially refined uranium ore) to Iraq in 1980 and 1982, and Niger supplied yellowcake to Iraq in 1981iv. And no this is not the same incident which turned out to be false. During the 1980's Iraq's nuclear program was publicly only for power production, hence there were no export/import prohibitions against aiding Iraq's nuclear program. By the end of 1984 Iraq was self-sufficient in uranium orev. On June 7th 1981 Israel destroyed the research reactor at Osirak, this forced Iraq to pursue a more clandestine uranium enrichment program.



Continued Development

As the Iran-Iraq War continued interest in military applications of nuclear energy was renewed. Resources were allocated towards developing the technology for production of HEU of fissile, or nuclear weapons, strength. While plutonium is preferable in nuclear weapons the Iraqi government opted to develop HEU which is easier to produce covertly. The Iraqi enrichment program operated parallel to the civilian programs. These enrichment programs included electromagnetic isotope separation and gas centrifuge enrichment. In 1982 the Office of Studies and Development (OSD) was established under the IAEC with the directive to research and development of uranium enrichment capabilities. Later in the year the OSD was reconstructed and was named as the Office 3000 with a staff of several hundred employees. Iraq studied various methods of uranium enrichment and began to make decisions near the end of the Iran-Iraq war as to the development of the program and infrastructure.

What is enriched uranium and why it is important? Nuclear weapons are powered by the nuclear core which consists of either uranium-235 or plutonium. Natural uranium consists of several isotopes, an isotope is an element with the same amount of protons in the nucleus but have different numbers of neutrons. This difference leads to either more or less stability. Natural uranium consists of over 99% U-238 and is a particularly stable isotope, a nuclear weapon cannot be created from U-238, the remaining amount of natural uranium, less than one percent, contains U-235. The isotope U-235 is much more reactive, when a free neutron strikes U-235 the atom splits and releases energy and other particles. This process usually only releases minor heat and energy, since the atoms are not close enough to sustain a chain reaction. A chain reaction is necessary to produce a nuclear explosion. To maintain a nuclear reaction the U-235 must be made into a “critical mass”, a critical mass is a mass of fissile material capable of producing a nuclear chain reaction. This critical mass is achieved by either compressing a spherical mass of fissile material with conventional explosive, as is achieved in most advanced nuclear weapons, or by shooting two sub-critical masses of fissile material at each other inside a barrel, referred to as a gun-barrel design, as was used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Therefore any nuclear weapons program will need a somewhat sophisticated program to extract the less than one percent of U-235 from natural uranium. Low enriched uranium (LEU) contains up to 20% U-235, the rest being the more stable isotope U-238, LEU is used as reactor fuel. Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) contains at least 20% U-235 with most nuclear weapons containing 85% to 90% U-235. Although lower percentages can be used to produce a nuclear weapon, down to 20%, the lower the concentration the larger the mass required to produce detonation.

In April of 1987 the IAEC formed a group structure to develop gaseous diffusion enrichment. The groups consisted of EMIS research and development, support activities, and the OSD. In the same month Iraq started the program code-named the Al-Husayn project (HP) under the supervision of Husayn Kamil. The project was directed to study and outline the steps required to start a nuclear weapons program. This program was transferred in November 1987 to the IAEC, becoming group 4 in April 1988 of the OSD, or office 3000. The nuclear weapons program and outline was implemented in June 1987 and shortly thereafter construction began on a nuclear weapons research, development, and production facility at Al-Athir in August 1988. In August of 1987 group 1 left the IAEC becoming an independent agency refereed to as the Engineering Design Directorate (EDD) located in Baghdad. The EDD then began developing centrifuge enrichment technology under the leadership of Husayn Kamil.

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Lead-up To The Gulf War

Iraq considered every form of enrichment technique but settled on electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS). In late 1987 Iraq began construction of a large EMIS plant at Tarmiya as well as the other facilities required for the EMIS technology to concentrate uranium, fabrication of EMIS equipment, and other facilities to support the industry. As the Iran-Iraq war neared its end the Nuclear weapons program was placed under the control of Husayn Kamil. In 1988 the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization (MIMI) was established and the EDD was renamed as the Engineering Design Center (EDC) and was appointed under the Military Industrialization Commission (MIC) which was itself operated under MIMI. In November Office 3000 which consisted of groups 2, 3, and 4 was transferred to MIMI. Husayn Kamil was appointed as Director of the MIC and MIMI and given control over the entire Iraqi nuclear program. In August of 1988 German engineers, on a trip to Baghdad, presented European centrifuge design data to the EDC who copied the information and used the data to further Iraq's enrichment program. Before the First Gulf War German engineers became increasingly involved in Iraq's enrichment program. The engineers based Iraq's centrifuge equipment on European enrichment consortium, URENCO, designs and transfered critical technology and data to their Iraqi counterparts and the EDC. Iraq also signed contracts with many other European firms for important and key equipment and technology. Prior to the First Gulf War Iraq acquired computers and other equipment from the Siemens company that was used in Iraq's uranium enrichment Some of Iraq's nuclear technical data and information came ironically from declassified documents of the America Manhattan Project.

Uranium enrichment is very difficult highly energy intensive, since there is only an atomic level difference between U-235 and U-238, the only difference between the two is three neutrons. Hence separation and enrichment is very difficult, there is no chemical difference between the isotopes and the weight of U-235 is only 1.26% lighter than U-238. Most enrichment techniques utilizes this slight atomic weight difference and successive steps and stages that gradually enrich the U-235 content from less than one percent up to 90% or greater. The staged enrichment, where each successive stage the uranium is enriched into greater concentrations is referred to as a cascade enrichment. There are several different methods of enrichment, the first is “thermal diffusion”, used during WWII but later abandoned for more practical and effective methods. Thermal diffusion utilizes temperature difference and the fact that the lighter isotope will diffuse towards the hotter surface and the heavier isotope will attract towards the colder surface. Next is the most popular and widely used method during the Cold War called “gaseous diffusion”. Gaseous diffusion uses uranium hexafluoride, forcing the gas through semi-permeable membranes, causing slight enrichment with each successive batch. Today's most utilized method is the “gas centrifuge”. Gas centrifuge uses rotating cylinders formed into a series and rotated at high speeds and great centrifugal force causing the heavier isotope to collect towards the outside of the cylinder and the lighter isotope to collect at the center. By using a cascade (series) of hundreds or thousands of centrifuges very high enrichment can be easily achieved. Electromagnetic isotope separation, or EMIS, uses magnetism to separate vaporized and ionized uranium. The EMIS method is not widely used today. The future of uranium enrichment is held in laser enrichment technology, although not used, and only feasible in theory and small scale research, promises much more efficient enrichment with lower energy costs.

In August of 1990 Iraq started a crash program to develop a nuclear weapon within a year including 50 gas centrifuge cascades for the production of HEU using uranium recovered from the Soviet research reactor as well as unused reactor fuel, both of which were already enrichedvii. The program was stopped dead in its tracks by the First Gulf War. The aim of the program was to develop a 20 kiloton warhead—roughly twice as strong as the weapon dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—using designs similar to those of the Nagasaki type implosion weapon. The warhead was to be designed to fit atop a missile, requiring a warhead mush smaller in size than that dropped on Japan. While this weapon design was Iraq's main concept for an initial weapon, Iraq was also designing far more advanced weapon designs.

The effects of a 20 kiloton nuclear weapon would totally destroy at least three square miles. Within a 1.6 mile radius of ground zero the peak blast pressure and initial radiation would cause a minimum of 80% casualty rate, with a minimum of 75% of those casualties being fatal. Up to over three mile radius of ground zero there would still be a 10% casualty rate. The blast would also create residual radiation which would contaminate the entire blast zone and create a dangerous radioactive fallout traveling downwind from the blast zone increasing numerous radiation caused illnesses, including highly increased cancer rates years later. The radiation will also contaminate food and water resources. A nuclear blast also creates an electromagnetic pulse which can destroy all electronic equipment for miles, making recovery and rescue operations even more difficult as well as knocking out other essential sources such as power, water filtration, communications, and some defense equipment such as unprotected radar stations.

Fall of Saddam


Crash Program

By 1991 one of the electromagnetic enrichment plants was near completion and another was under construction. Although that same year Iraq failed in its electromagnetic enrichment program and decided to concentrate on the gas enrichment method as its sole means for producing HEU. Gas centrifuge facilities were under construction though their design was still being developed. By the time the Gulf War erupted in 1991 Iraq had a large covert nuclear weapons program with complete weapons designs. The nuclear weapons program, in 1991, employed approximately 10,000 personnel and had a multi-year budget of $10 billion.viii In 2004 the former head of Iraq's nuclear agency, Jafar Dhia Jafar, announced that the weapons program had ended in 1991 though they were only two to three years away from producing a nuclear weapon.ix Weapons inspectors found a document which describing an offer of help in designing a nuclear weapon in exchange for money from a Pakistani agent, probably A. Q. Kahn or an intermediary. Iraq claims that this offer was rejected though weapons inspectors and judging from Iraq's advanced nuclear weapons program it is believed that Iraq did accept this outside help.x In December of 1990, during the buildup to the Gulf War, the London Sunday Times published the alarming news that Iraq's centrifuge program was merely a year away from enriching enough uranium for a bomb.

The invasion of Kuwait and UN economic embargo accelerated Iraq's “crash program” to produce a nuclear weapon. Using nuclear fuel from the research reactor at Tuwaitha, and other reactors, Iraq planned on a system of 50 cascade centrifuges in order to produce weapons grade fuel for at least one nuclear weapon. This urgency was no doubt to find a deterrent against military intervention in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Iraq failed in its rushed quest at producing a nuclear weapon due to insufficient centrifuge development, uranium recovery capabilities, and weapons designs and development. By the end of the war the Iraqi Nuclear Program (INP) employed several thousand personnel and was commissioning EMIS equipment at Tarmiya and beginning to produce enriched uranium. Iraq successfully operated a test centrifuge and was constructing facilities for enrichment cascades. Iraq expecting a working nuclear weapon in the near future selected a site to conduct an underground test. Some of Iraq's nuclear weapons data and information was drawn from declassified documents of America's Manhattan Project.

Estimates put Iraq, at the time, one to three years from building a nuclear weapon. If not for the First Gulf War Iraq would be a full fledged nuclear power before the 2003 invasion. The First Gulf War proved to be the greatest setback to Saddam's weapons programs. The nuclear program had an entire industry composed of nuclear scientists and experts, databases, and manufacturing infrastructure. The Iraqi nuclear weapons program cost at least $10 billion. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that Iraq had; experimented with with high explosives in order to produce shock waves for use in an implosion type nuclear warhead, spent significant resources to research various forms of neutron initiators, and had significantly developed capabilities for the production, casting, and machining of uranium metal. In the end the only thing which ended Iraq's nuclear weapons program was the decision to invade Kuwait. Coalition bombing effectively ended Iraq's nuclear ambitions. If not for Saddam's mistake in judging the worlds response to the invasion and the resulting military intervention, Iraq would be today a full fledge nuclear power. This nuclear power would have undoubtedly found its way to destroy cities in Israel and America. For further reading see Dr. Khidir Hamza's book “Saddam's Bomb Maker”, coauthored with Jeff Stein in which Hamza describes his work as a nuclear weapons scientist as well as Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs under Saddam Hussein.

  • Axel Electronics, in 1987, Provided about $84,000 worth of capacitors to Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization. These capacitors were capable of powering a firing set for a nuclear weapon.xi
  • The German company Leybold Heraeus and its sister companies were major suppliers of nuclear components to Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, South Africa, and possibly Libya during the 1990s.

  • Hiptronics, in 1989, sold nine power-supply units worth about $287,000 to Iraq, this equipment was used in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.xii
  • Hardinge Brothers, manufactured a super-precise turning lathe which was found by U.N. Inspectors at Al Atheer, Iraq’s nuclear weapons design and research center. The lathe was used in the production of nuclear centrifuges. U.N. weapons inspectors destroyed the lathe in the first round of inspections.xiii
  • In 1986 Canberra Industries and Canberra Elektronik GmbH, in Germany, provided $30,000 worth of electronic and computer equipment to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission.xiv

“There is unmistakable evidence that Saddam Hussein is working aggressively to develop nuclear weapons and will likely have nuclear weapons within the next five years... We also should remember we have always underestimated the progress Saddam has made in development of weapons of mass destruction.”—Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D, WV), Oct 10, 2002.


iIraq Survey Group, Final Report,

iiNuclear Threat Initiative,

iiiHamza, Khidhir, (September/October 1998), The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

ivCopley, Gregory R., Reports of French Involvement in Niger-Iraq Uranium Case Not Reliable,September 8, 2004

vIraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction, The Assessment of the British Government.

viGary Milhollin, Saddam's nuclear shopping spree, The New Yorker, December 13th, 1999, p. 44.

viiIraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction, The Assessment of the British Government.

viiiJames Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies.

ixJames Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies.

xGary Milhollin, Saddam's nuclear shopping spree, The New Yorker, December 13th, 1999, p. 44.

xi Made In the USA, Part III: US Company Listings A-M, By Jim Crogan, 2003,

xii Made In the USA, Part III: US Company Listings A-M, By Jim Crogan, 2003,

xiii Made In the USA, Part III: US Company Listings A-M, By Jim Crogan, 2003,

xiv Made In the USA, Part III: US Company Listings A-M, By Jim Crogan, 2003,

© 2016 Lloyd Busch

Comments & Thoughts

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      Nudely 12 months ago

      It was the most demagogued military intervention in modern history. Christopher Hitchens, a sage whose brilliance waxed magnificently as he aged, thought Bush's Iraq War would be remembered in history as one of the greatest pieces of statecraft of Bush's legacy. I wholeheartedly concur. That the Iraq situation was mishandled from Jan. 2009 on is another story completely. I appreciate your Hub.