In 1998, Ernest Piffl, managing director of the German firm Team GmbH near Stuttgart, received a three and half year prison sentence for illegally exporting thousands of preforms for gas centrifuge scoops to Pakistan's secret uranium enrichment program. Preforms are partially finished cast or machined components, and the ones sent to Pakistan were made of a special aluminum alloy and looked like small thin-walled pipes. Bending and finishing these little pipes would have been done at the point of assembly of the centrifuge.
The regional superior court of Stuttgart established that the end-user of the last consignment of preforms, which was confiscated by German authorities in 1993, would have been the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) near Islamabad. KRL is responsible for Pakistan's secret uranium enrichment program and is well known for involvement in illicit procurement and the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons.
Piffl argued that because the preforms were not finished, i.e. in the final form of a scoop, they represented unfinished components and thus were not covered by nuclear export control laws. In addition, the defendant argued that he did not know the actual end-use of these preforms. He claimed that the parts were "preformed parts for writing instruments."1
By rejecting the defense's arguments, the court established the legal precedent that preforms of gas centrifuge parts can be treated as direct-use nuclear items on the nuclear commodity control list. The court further found that Piffl should have known that the parts might have had a nuclear use. In particular, he should have known that Khan Research Laboratories was involved in secret gas centrifuge work, particularly since he had long known Pakistani nuclear scientists, including A. Q. Khan, the then-head of KRL.2
Legal AspectsThe court evaluated two key questions.3 Does the nuclear commodity control list include unfinished products? From which point are the goods considered finished?
The defense argued that the preforms were delivered as straight pipes without finishing, and thus they are not on the German nuclear commodity control list. This list includes static components made of uranium hexafluoride-resistant materials, including scoops for withdrawing uranium hexafluoride from the rotor chamber. If an item is on this list, it is expressly controlled and requires an end-user in one of the five acknowledged nuclear weapon states or a state where full-scope IAEA safeguards are in effect. Pakistan fell into neither group.
The court rejected the defense's argument, based on "Preliminary Note 3" to the nuclear commodity control list that was in effect at the time of the export.4 This note says:
"A product also falls under the [commodity control list] if it is a special component of a product listed in [the list] even without being specified as such. Special parts should be interpreted as components of products, which are specifically designed for these products and can only be used in such."
The court also concluded that the bending of straight tubes into the final form of the scoop is relatively easy to do, requiring only a few additional finishing steps before insertion into a centrifuge. Thus, it reasoned that these preforms were components of centrifuges and subject to the same controls as finished centrifuge components.
Technical AspectsFigure 1 is a design drawing of the preform made by Piffl's company. The preform is a special alloy composed of aluminum, magnesium, and silicon. It is about 200 millimeters long with a diameter less than 12 millimeters. Each piece costs about 20 DM. Although relatively inexpensive, each piece is far more expensive than a preform for writing instruments.5
According to a German gas centrifuge expert who testified at the trial, figure 1 is a preform design for upper and lower scoops, likely for the G2 centrifuge, a German-designed centrifuge deployed by Urenco in the 1970s. The same scoop could have also been used in other Urenco designs.
This expert said that Piffl had in his possession classified centrifuge component drawings stamped MAN, the former Munich-based centrifuge manufacturing company. In addition, another design in Piffl's possession was a German Urenco scoop preform drawing from the mid-1980s that was also classified.
Connection to PakistanThe court was satisfied that the 1993 shipment of preforms was consigned to Khan Research Laboratories. According to the export permit for this last shipment, the end user was listed as the Directorate of Technical Equipment in Islamabad.6 However, the court determined that this shipment was intended for KRL at Kahuta.
According to Nuclear Fuel, prosecutors established a pattern of warm and friendly contact since 1973 between Piffl and officials responsible for Pakistan's secret nuclear program, including A. Q. Khan.7 In addition, Piffl had been an informant for the Bundesnachrichtendienst, the German foreign intelligence agency and provided information about Pakistan's military procurement efforts. Piffl eventually made a partial confession and told the court he regretted having contributed to Pakistan's secret nuclear program.8
The court determined that Piffl exported additional preforms and perhaps other items to Pakistan's nuclear program from 1988 to 1993. Piffl was eventually arrested following a German intelligence investigation, which tapped Piffl's telephone calls with his business contacts in Pakistan.9
1 Mark Hibbs, "Convicted German Preform Exporter Had Kahuta Contacts for 20 Years," Nuclear Fuel, September 7, 1998. See also Hibbs, "German Court Convicts Ex-BND Informant for Pakistan Centrifuge Preform Deals," Nuclear Fuel, July 27, 1998.
3"Nuclear Goods to Pakistan," AW-Prax, August 1999, pp. 300-301.
4 "Nuclear Goods," op. cit.
5 "Convicted German," op. cit.
6 "German Court," op. cit.
7 "Convicted German," op. cit.
8 "Convicted German," op. cit.
9"Convicted German," op. cit.