Old engineer accused of helping Libyan nuclear program

German authorities on Friday charged a 62-year-old engineer with helping Libya's now-abandoned efforts to build a nuclear bomb. Gotthard Lerch, who was extradited from Switzerland in June, is charged with violating weapons and trade laws, said Christina Arnold, a spokeswoman for prosecutors in Mannheim.

Lerch was arrested in November in northeast Switzerland on an international warrant after his name figured prominently in investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. He is accused of helping Libya develop a gas centrifuge to enrich uranium for use in atomic weapons between 1999 and 2003, Arnold said.

Of the production costs of Ђ15 million (US$18 million), Lerch is accused of making a profit of Ђ12 million (US$14.4 million). The parts for the centrifuge were being made in South Africa, and the apparatus would have been able to produce 28 kilograms (about 62 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium each year, Arnold said, adding that only 10 kilograms (22 pounds) were needed to build an effective nuclear weapon. The centrifuge was never delivered and the was project abandoned after Libya abandoned its nuclear program in 2003.

Lerch's arrest was part of an investigation to uncover the secret network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who admitted in 2004 that he passed nuclear technology to other countries. In August 2004 German authorities also arrested Gerhard Wisser, whom they described at the time as the main suspect in the case. He was released on bail but re-arrested in South Africa the following month, reports the AP. N.U.

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