Pakistan’s Strategic Weapons in Perfect Safety

The safekeeping of nuclear and other strategic weapons has always been given enhanced attention over the storage of conventional weapons system. Since the first development of nuclear weapons more than 70 years ago, gradual development of the command and control of these very sensitive weapons has been the priority of the nuclear nations of the world. In spite of these efforts several kilograms of fissile material Uranium 233, enough to build three nuclear war heads, was stolen from the Los Alamos facilities of the United States and was never traced.

The United States of America being the foremost nuclear weapons state witnessed the accidental release of a hydrogen bomb from under the wings of its Strategic Air Command bomber off the coast of Spain. Fortunately this weapon fell into the Atlantic Ocean without exploding. The weapon could not be retrieved.

In early 1979, a meltdown occurred as a result of nuclear safety failure in Unit No. 2 of the nuclear power plant situated at Three Mile Island in the United States. This disaster was so serious that it was rated at 5 on the maximum scale of upto 7 in terms of nuclear accidents.

In April 1986, the world witnessed meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union when its safety system failed to shut it down after a malfunction. The radioactivity emanating from the nuclear reactor spread over large areas of thickly populated Europe bringing serious health damage to the population.

In the year 2011 another serious nuclear accident occurred in Fukushima power reactors in Japan destroying four power plants. These power plants were hit by a Tsunami and here again the safety systems failed to control a nuclear meltdown and heating of the reactors. The consequent release of radioactivity contaminated the Pacific Ocean making fish unsuitable for human consumption upto the western coasts of the United States and Canada.

A serious case of theft of highly radioactive nuclear material was reported from the Durgapur Steel Plant in India. Several steel cylinders filled with radioactive material somehow found their way into the storage of the steel plant. Taking them as steel scrap these cylinders were stolen and when implications of a spread of lethal radioactivity were realized, a search was conducted. The cylinders containing highly radioactive liquid, possibly radioactive waste, were found dumped in a public community toilet. In India, incidences of theft of nuclear materials are wide and varied beginning in the 70s and spread over three decades. Eight kgs of Uranium was recovered from thieves in Tamil Nadu and another Six kgs were stolen by S. Murthy and associates in 1998. Two kgs of Uranium was also found with thieves who stole it from Madras Atomic Power Station. A very large amount of radioactive material weighing 25 kgs was stolen from Bibi Cancer Hospital in year 2000. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported fuel rods missing from nuclear power reactor facility in India containing 57 pounds of Uranium. The theft and illegal trading of Uranium and other radioactive materials from various nuclear facilities in India seems to be an unending phenomenon with very serious implications for nuclear safety.

Pakistan began its quest for fissile material with the establishment of an enrichment facility in the early 90s. It has now been twenty seven years that Pakistan is producing weapons grade fissile materials and storing the same safely. The first nuclear research reactor was established just outside Islamabad in 1965 and this reactor used highly enriched Uranium as fuel. Nearly fifteen nuclear medical centers and several more research facilities for industry and agriculture also have been using medium to high potency radioactive materials continuously for the last 60 years. Burnt fuel containing high radioactive waste products has been successful and safe storage and duly confirmed as such by the IAEA inspectors at Pakistan’s first nuclear power plant KANNUP since 1969.

Since the year 2004, terrorism has spilled over from Afghanistan into Pakistan. The incidences of use of explosive materials and devices against human, military and paramilitary targets increased rapidly. By the year 2013, Air Force bases, General Headquarters of ground forces, airports, international hotels, mosques, parks, railway stations and variety of police training schools and educational institutions had been attacked. Remote controlled explosive devices, suicide belts and assault attacks by heavily armed terrorists were used against targets in Pakistan. It is emphatically reiterated that under this unmatched terrorist onslaught on Pakistan, not a single gram of nuclear material, nor any small, medium or large sized nuclear weapon was either stolen, damaged or destroyed. Pakistan being the youngest nuclear weapons state incorporated the best features of command and control systems of the Western nuclear powers in its own command and control system. This resulted in so far the best Command Control Communications Computers Intelligence and Reconnaissance based system for safekeeping of nuclear weapons and materials and their deployment.

In recognition of Pakistan’s perfect track record of nuclear materials and weapons safety under the most tested and trying conditions spread over a period of almost 48 years, the IAEA in Vienna sponsored a seminar and workshop in Islamabad in 2016 to share its command and control experience with the more advanced and older nuclear weapons states of the world.

In the history of our country, it has been witnessed time and again that USA exerts pressure on Pakistan by raising the bogey of the possibility of its nuclear weapons and materials falling into terrorists hands. It has happened in the past and it is happening now. How ironic that aspersions are cast on Pakistan’s command and control system, which enjoys a perfect track record, by a country which has lost fissile material from “highly safeguarded facilities”, has had nuclear power reactor meltdown and lost hydrogen bombs into the Atlantic Ocean from its strategic bombers. It is about time that this so called advanced nuclear weapons custodian looks inward and tries to improve the security of its own arsenal especially in the face of increasing terrorist incidents rather than lecturing Pakistan on nuclear safety.

Courtesy Hilal Magazine

The writer is an eminent scientist who led the team of scientists and engineers to conduct Pakistan's Nuclear Tests at Chagai in May 1998. He did his masters in Physics with academic “roll of honour” from Government College Lahore in 1962 and later did his DPhil in Experimental Nuclear Physics from the University of Oxford in 1966. He was later appointed Chairman of NESCOM in 2000. On joining the Planning Commission of Pakistan he was responsible for conceiving and implementation of the Reko Diq Copper Gold Project and the Underground Coal Gasification Project at Thar Coal Fields.