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July 17, 1998
By Mark Hibbs


U.S. Appears to be Losing Track of Pakistan's Nuclear Program


Two months after Pakistan followed India with tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests, U.S. government officials admit they are far less certain than before the blasts about the state of Pakistan's nuclear weapons development program.
 
In particular, major questions have emerged about Pakistan's current activities to produce weapons bomb fuels, bomb-grade high-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium.
 
Bomb-grade uranium can be made in Pakistan by operation of gas centrifuges to increase the share of the fissile isotope U-235 in the uranium product, to 90% or more U-235, compared to a level of 0.71% U-235 found in raw uranium ores. Under an informal U.S.-Pakistan deal from 1988, which U.S. officials said went into effect in 1993, Islamabad told Washington that it would freeze production of bomb-grade HEU indefinitely, and refrain from enriching uranium to a level above 20% U-235.
 
Since then, but before the tests, officials said the U.S. had obtained intelligence confirmation that Pakistan had, in fact, stopped production of bomb-grade uranium.
 
After this spring's test series, however, U.S. officials now say they do not have enough intelligence information to tell whether Pakistan has resumed HEU production at any time recently. These statements followed claims by Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, that, contrary to statements made to Nucleonics Week by U.S. officials in the past, Pakistan never stopped making bomb-grade HEU during the 1980s and 1990s. Khan claimed that no Pakistani regime ever interfered with the production of bomb-grade uranium.
 
Last week U.S. officials said that the Pakistan government has declined to either confirm or deny Khan's assertions.
 
The question whether Pakistan is making HEU is important since, at present, uranium is Pakistan's only bomb fuel. How much it has is one key measure of the potential size of a Pakistani nuclear arsenal.
 
Although Pakistan said it detonated a half-dozen nuclear shots two months ago, most experts believe that the number was far less--possibly as few as one or two. With uncertainty about how much HEU Pakistan used up during its tests, the additional uncertainty about Pakistan's current HEU production means that estimates of how much HEU Pakistan now has for bombs range between 100 and 500 kilograms. Since Pakistan would need about 20 kilograms for a single nuclear weapon, Pakistan may have a potential arsenal as small as five bombs, or as large as 25.
 
Meanwhile, U.S. officials say they have far less confidence than before the tests that Pakistan cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium.
 
Pakistan has built a reactor at Khushab in the Punjab which might generate about 10 kilograms of weapons-quality plutonium in its spent fuel per year. That would be more than enough plutonium for one nuclear bomb each year.
 
But before the tests, White House officials said that the U.S. was sure Pakistan had no way of separating the plutonium from the spent fuel in a reprocessing plant. They therefore told Pakistan that it would not be advancing its security by operating the secret reactor.
 
Now, however, U.S. officials say they fear that Pakistan has developed an unknown reprocessing capability, or is doing so in any one of several suspected locations. For that reason, they said, it can be assumed that the Khushab reactor will be operated now and in the future to generate plutonium, and that the plutonium will be separated and used to make bombs--regardless of efforts by the Clinton Administration to cripple Pakistan with harsh economic sanctions.
 
Will Pakistan continue to develop more nuclear weapons? The answer depends in large part on the following questions, which deserve high priority attention:
 
- Is Pakistan making HEU now?
 
- If so, when did it start and at what pace?
 
- How many uranium bombs did Pakistan actually explode this spring?
 
- Can Pakistan now reprocess the spent fuel from the Khushab reactor, or is reprocessing capability under development?
 
*For more information, see the following article reprinted with permission from Nucleonics Week.
 

U.S. Now Believes Pakistan to use Khushab Plutonium in Bomb Program

By Mark Hibbs
Nucleonics Week, 16 July, 1998 (reprinted with permission)

 
Less than a year after the White House told Pakistan its security interests would not be served by starting up an unsafeguarded plutonium production reactor at Khushab because Pakistan could not reprocess the spent fuel, U.S. executive branch officials now say they fear instead that Pakistan is operating that reactor to produce weapons-grade plutonium and will separate the plutonium and use it in the country's ongoing nuclear weapons program.
 
At issue is a 50-MW (th) heavy water-moderated reactor, built by Pakistan with some Chinese assistance since the late 1980s at Khushab in the Punjab. The initial report of the clandestine construction project (Nucleonics Week 6 Mar.'89, 13) was denied by Pakistan. During the last decade, however, progress at the construction site was routinely monitored by U.S. intelligence satellites. After a series of delays, the Islamabad government announced this spring that the reactor had just gone critical.
 
Western officials said that intelligence agencies have not positively identified in Pakistan any reprocessing plant, either operating or under construction, which would be large enough to handle spent fuel from the natural uranium-fueled Khushab reactor, but that a number of locations are suspected of serving as a location for plutonium separation activities. One official said that intelligence data, including customs intelligence information, conclusively points to a gradual intensification of research and development activities by Pakistan in the area of plutonium separation.
 
According to one Western official close to the matter, regardless of international efforts to apply crippling economic sanctions to Pakistan, "it is now pretty clear that Pakistan is going to go ahead with its weapons program and that the logic dictates that they will use the plutonium" generated by Khushab.
 
Less Intelligence Confidence
 
Recent statements by Western officials monitoring Pakistan appear to indicate that the U.S. and other governments have far less confidence in their nuclear intelligence-gathering ability there than was the case before India, and then Pakistan, surprised the world by conducting a series of nuclear weapons tests this spring.
 
Soon after India and Pakistan tested their bombs, senior nonproliferation officials at U.S. DOE began claiming that DOE's regional nonproliferation specialists, including top U.S. intelligence analysts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's (LLNL) so-called "Z Division," had in fact predicted, unlike other U.S. experts, that the tests were immanent. But other experts close to the matter vigorously denied that. These sources told Nucleonics Week that statements made by "Z Division" experts just weeks before the tests were conducted showed that DOE's top analysts "got it just as wrong as everybody else," including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of State.
 
Before India tested a nuclear weapon this year, U.S. officials said they were confident that Pakistan had adhered to an informal pledge by Islamabad to the U.S. in the late 1980s that it would indefinitely suspend production of weapons-grade high-enriched uranium (HEU). In the past, U.S. officials had asserted that U.S. intelligence had obtained confirmation that Pakistan was not enriching uranium to a level above 20% U-235.
 
Now, just weeks after Pakistan's tests, U.S. officials say they have no confidence that Pakistan is not making weapons-grade HEU and, they assert, not enough information to challenge statements by Pakistan's top nuclear scientist that Islamabad never ceased HEU production regardless of statements by U.S. officials that Pakistan had informally agreed to do so. These sources also said they have no hard intelligence data pointing to the status of uranium enrichment activities today at the Kahuta gas centrifuge plant or at other sites which have been developed during the 1990s.
 
In the meantime, Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's leading nuclear weapons scientist, has claimed that, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan never ceased making HEU and that the material has continuously been stockpiled for strategic use.
 
According to one U.S. official, the Pakistan government has not formally confirmed Khan's claims. However, this official said, "we don't have enough information" about the status of uranium enrichment in Pakistan to draw a conclusion as to whether Pakistan is now enriching uranium to weapon-grade, but said it "can be assumed" that the informal agreement by Pakistan with the U.S. not to make HEU "will not be upheld" since Pakistan intends to further pursue nuclear weapons develop and accumulate a stockpile of bomb-grade nuclear fuels.
 
Regarding the plutonium route, U.S. officials likewise categorically asserted prior to the Pakistani tests that Pakistan had no significant reprocessing capability apart from a small pilot facility at the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science in Rawalpindi.
 
In the wake of the tests, however, U.S. officials and other Western experts are no longer so sure. One said that Pakistan has continued to amass know-how on plutonium separation and that the pace of that effort has intensified. While U.S. officials played down Pakistan's reprocessing capabilities before the test, dismissing a previous French program to transfer reprocessing know-how to Pakistan at a plant to be built at Chasma as "an empty shell," another expert claimed after the tests that know-how which had been provided to Pakistan from the French firm Saint Gobain, under that abandoned program, was "very considerable."
 
After Pakistan followed India with its tit-for-tat tests, Pakistani scientists, including Khan, chided India for having opted for plutonium weapons, claiming that Pakistan's HEU-fueled devices were safer to handle and and represented use of more advanced gas centrifuge technology. But said one U.S. official: "We know that (Pakistan) has pondered going the plutonium route for a long time, they are in a position to do it, and it can be assumed that they are going to do it."
 
Since the early 1970s, Abdul Qadeer Khan was Pakistan's prime champion of using HEU in nuclear weapons. According to one former White House nonproliferation official, in parallel with A.Q. Khan's efforts on behalf of HEU, the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons was advocated instead by Munir Khan, formerly the chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Munir Khan, who at the IAEA 1997 General Conference figured prominently in a celebration of the IAEA's role in global nonproliferation, and has scrupulously denied that he was involved in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, "lost the battle over Pakistan's bomb fuel, and, thereafter, A.Q. Khan got the upper hand over the weapons program," this source said.
 
Copyright 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form, or for any other purpose, is forbidden without express permission of the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Nuclear Watch is written exclusively for Global Beat. Mark Hibbs is European Editor of Nucleonics Week and Nuclear Fuel, leading specialist newsletters on international nuclear affairs, published by McGraw-Hill, Inc. Hibbs, based in Bonn, Germany, covers nuclear energy and proliferation problems in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Asia.

Mark Hibbs' coordinates:
Tel: x49-228-215051
Fax: x49-228-218849
E-mail: mhibb@mh.com


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