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Export Control Helps Prevent WMD Proliferation

February 10, 2005
Argonne National Laboratory
While inspecting a container ship docked at a major transshipment hub, an alert official, trained weeks before by Argonne National Laboratory export control specialists, noted that 20 of the containers onboard contained tons of sodium sulfide – a controlled chemical that has many legitimate uses such as leather tanning but could also be used to create chemical weapons.

ARGONNE, Ill. (Feb. 4, 2005) — While inspecting a container ship docked at a major transshipment hub, an alert official, trained weeks before by Argonne National Laboratory export control specialists, noted that 20 of the containers onboard contained tons of sodium sulfide – a controlled chemical that has many legitimate uses such as leather tanning but could also be used to create chemical weapons.

Sodium sulfide is not the sort of contraband that customs inspectors are traditionally trained to look for, but the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Commodity Identification Training program is working to stop illicit trafficking of materials and equipment needed for weapons of mass destruction.

Trainers provided inspectors with a valuable booklet recently developed by Argonne's Nonproliferation and National Security Program. The booklet is an index and cross reference for customs inspectors that lists in six distinct ways chemicals used in the development of chemical weapons, nuclear weapons or missiles. The booklet greatly simplifies and facilitates the task of determining if a given chemical falls under one of the multilateral export control regimes.

“It was a good intercept,” said Pete Heine, Argonne's Section Manager for Export Control and Technical Cooperation. “Whether it was actually going for a chemical weapons program or not is still being determined. Sodium sulfide can be used for leather tanning, but it is a chemical-weapon precursor and required a license to be moved legally.”

Argonne led the development of the Commodity Identification Training program for the U.S. Department of Energy's International Nonproliferation Export Control Program (INECP). The program is establishing ongoing training courses in dozens of countries to teach customs inspectors to spot these items. “These are the people on the front line who can and will prevent proliferation,” said Heine.

“This seizure is proof that Commodity Identification Training works,” Heine said. “We want inspectors to have a ‘trained eye' to watch for the right things. They can determine when shipments may require an export license. For export control efforts to have an impact on proliferators, illicit shipments must be detected and interdicted.”

“People now understand the importance of nonproliferation,” said export control specialist Kirsten Laurin-Kovitz, “but often don't understand how it works. Export control is where nonproliferation becomes real. We try to prevent controlled technology, equipment or materials from getting into the wrong hands.”

Argonne's export control group supports the strengthening of export control systems worldwide through the INECP and by supporting U.S. participation in the multilateral export control regimes, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The group also contributes to the implementation of the U.S. export-control system in accordance with the norms set by those regimes.

Groundbreaking handbook

Training is just one of the Nuclear Engineering Division's export control programs. Another critical element is providing expertise. For example, the chemical index that inspectors used was derived from a book written by Argonne chemist Julie Gruetzmacher. Gruetzmacher is Argonne's Walter H. Zinn Postdoctoral Fellow.

Called A Handbook for the Australia Group Chemical Weapons Precursors, it is a one-stop reference manual for chemical-export-control personnel. This book provides a wealth of information related to each of the chemical-weapon ingredients on the Australian Group Chemical Control List. The Australia Group is an arrangement among 38 member countries to minimize the risk of chemical and biological weapon proliferation.

“This handbook is a sorely needed resource to inform export control decision-making related to these chemicals,” said Heine.

Nuclear expertise

Argonne's entrée into the export-control world was through its acknowledged nuclear expertise. The laboratory was founded nearly 60 years ago to develop peaceful applications for nuclear technology and has been involved in myriad nuclear projects. In the 1990s, nuclear engineering experts at Argonne and other national labs assisted countries formerly with the Soviet Union to improve the safety of their nuclear reactors and to secure nuclear materials.

This nuclear assistance program served as a model for export control assistance programs and grew into DOE's INECP. INECP no longer focuses on former Soviet countries. Like the proliferation threat, INECP is now global. Technical staff from several Department of Energy laboratories work with almost 30 countries to strengthen export control systems across the globe.

INECP activities in a country usually begin with technical exchanges or U.S.-led training courses. “Then,” Heine said, “we generally establish partnerships with technical counterparts in the country who implement projects for us.” This approach supports the INECP objective of establishing indigenous, sustainable capabilities in partner countries. Argonne export control specialists lead INECP technical interactions in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, India, Malta, Pakistan and Ukraine.

In addition, Argonne is responsible for expanding the INECP into other countries. Heine scopes out possible partnerships and serves as an advisor on initial trips to assess needs and identify appropriate cooperative activities in these countries, such as Argentina and Brazil.

Proliferation risk analysis

Recent revelations of ongoing proliferation of nuclear-related equipment, materials and technology, facilitated by elaborate procurement networks like that of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan, demonstrate that proliferation is changing.

According to Laurin-Kovitz, proliferation used to be primarily the domain of middle men working as procurement agents. Now proliferators are organizing supplier networks, working as salesmen and brokers marketing nuclear capabilities, and even establishing dedicated manufacturing operations of their own for difficult-to-obtain items.

Accordingly, another major component of export controls at Argonne is proliferation risk analysis.

American companies wanting to sell certain controlled technology, equipment or materials to other countries have to apply for an export license. Argonne export-control staff analyzes these exports for proliferation risk for DOE. These analyses are particularly complex when they involve “dual-use” items that have legitimate uses but can also be used to create weapons of mass destruction. One example is high-precision machine tools that can be used legally for making hard disk drives or aircraft, but can be used illegally to fabricate nuclear explosive parts.

The export control specialist must think like a detective to uncover false statements of the product's end use, mismatches between the product's technical specifications and its stated end use, end uses that don't make technical sense or are not consistent with the end user's activities, and other such clues pointing toward illicit procurement. Finally, the analyst must think like a proliferant to assess how the product might be diverted to support of a WMD program.

“The challenge in export control is staying ahead of the bad guys,” said Heine. “People are being arrested for these activities, and as more countries criminalize proliferation, we will see a change.”

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Materials provided by Argonne National Laboratory. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Argonne National Laboratory. "Export Control Helps Prevent WMD Proliferation." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 February 2005. <>.
Argonne National Laboratory. (2005, February 10). Export Control Helps Prevent WMD Proliferation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 21, 2024 from
Argonne National Laboratory. "Export Control Helps Prevent WMD Proliferation." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 21, 2024).

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