Iraq could foil nuclear test ban

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

Third World countries on the threshold of becoming nuclear powers could develop theweapons undetected, using new simulation techniques, according to a German defence scientist. The simulation is said to be well within the capabilities of countries such as Iraq, and could make the forthcoming Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty irrelevant as a means of halting nuclear proliferation.

The global ban on all nuclear testing is due to come into force next year. The French tests in the South Pacific will probably be the last. For developed countries with sophisticated computers, it is already possible to predict the size and characteristics of a nuclear blast without actually testing. The French have said their tests are the final stage in calibrating their computer codes, which will then obviate the need for further tests.

Until now it has been assumed the ban would make it hard for other countries to develop nuclear weapons because full-scale tests would be instantly detected. But simpler ways of mimicking nuclear explosions would enable these countries - "threshold" nuclear powers such as Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea - to develop powerful warheads, and predict their performance accurately, without being detected by the International Atomic Energy Authority.

One new technique is called sonoluminescence. A bubble in a liquid is expanded and contracted using ultrasound. If the bubble implodes, it can reach temperatures of 10 million C at its centre, simulating a nuclear fusion reaction.

Britain and France have laser facilities which can be used to help simulate fusion. This week's announcement on Franco-British nuclear co-operation may mean British scientists using France's laser at Bordeaux.

However, Dr Artur Knoth, a German defence scientist, told the International Defense Review: "Several other techniques are currently available, and all are well within the abilities of existing physics. All are cheap to operate and all are relatively unchallenging technically. Except for fusion tests done by laser, all require small levels of equipment and hence would be hard to detect by reconnaissance satellite. This makes cases of suspected proliferation all the harder to prove."