On the dusty plain 110 miles southwest of Islamabad, not far from an area controlled by the Taliban, two large new structures are rising, structures that in light of Pakistan’s internal troubles must be considered ominous for the stability of South Asia and, for that matter, the world.
Without any public U.S. reproach, Pakistan is building two of the developing world’s largest plutonium production reactors, which experts say could lead to improvements in the quantity and quality of the country’s nuclear arsenal, now estimated at 60 to 80 weapons.
What makes the project even more threatening is that it is unique.
“Pakistan is really the only country rapidly building up its nuclear forces,” says a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the issue, noting that the nations that first developed nuclear weapons are now reducing their arsenals.
Moreover, he and other U.S. officials say, there long have been concerns about those who run the facility where the reactors are being built near the town of Khushab. They note that a month before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Khushab’s former director met with Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and offered a nuclear weapons tutorial around an Afghanistan campfire.
Then there are the billions in U.S. economic and military aid that have permitted Pakistan’s military to divert resources to nuclear and other weapons projects.
Bottom line: Khushab exemplifies all of the dangers posed by the Pakistani nuclear weapons program.
First new reactor near completion
In the past several months, satellite imagery shows the first of these new reactors at Khushab nearing completion while the second is in final stages of external construction. Operations at the first may begin soon, while the second is four or five years from operation.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a project that studies non-proliferation issues, is one of the few in Washington who sounded the alarm about the Khushab reactors.
“It’s a lot further along than we expected,” says Albright. “We’re seeing steady progress. … We don’t know if they have the (uranium) fuel or heavy water on-site, but on the outside, major construction appears finished … We don’t know what’s going on inside.”
What is clear, Albright says, is that Pakistani officials are committing limited national resources to building up the country’s nuclear arsenal, resources he and others note have been supplemented and replenished by U.S. aid.
“They’re building a capability beyond any reasonable requirement,” says Albright, who first wrote about Khushab two years ago, when he noticed construction south of an existing but smaller plutonium production reactor that’s been operating since about 1998.
“We think it’s bigger than the first one,” he says of the so-called Khushab-I reactor, estimated by U.S. intelligence at 70 megawatts.
Albright estimates the new reactors are “at least on the order of 100 megawatts,” each capable of producing enough plutonium for “four or five nuclear weapons a year.” While small by power reactor standards, that’s substantially larger than the research reactors that provided material for the weapons programs of Israel, India and North Korea. He also believes that the reactors could have a separate mission: producing tritium, an element critical to the development of thermonuclear weapons, what used to be called H-bombs.
Change in nuclear strategy
Albright is not alone among non-proliferation experts. Zia Mian, of the International Panel on Fissile Materials at Princeton University, says adding a reliable and large-scale plutonium stream to the country’s long-term expertise in uranium enrichment signals a change in Pakistan’s nuclear strategy.
“The addition of the two reactors does two things,” Mian notes. “It allows them to make a lot more warheads, four or five a year, but it also allows them to make much lighter and more complex weapons for longer-range missiles and cruise missiles. ... And triggers for thermonuclear weapons are almost always plutonium-based.”
Mian notes that Pakistan already has intermediate-range and short-range missiles capable of hitting any target in India, as well as submarine-launched cruise missiles.
Moreover, Mian says he believes that Pakistan also is upgrading its uranium centrifuge program at Kahuta, outside Islamabad, which has already given the country its first 70 nuclear weapons.
“There have been a series of reports where you can find evidence of Pakistan developing third- and fourth-generation centrifuges, much more powerful,” he said, “the same as the Europeans use to produce reactor fuel.”
The Pakistani government has no official comment on the reactors or the suspected upgrade in uranium enrichment. A senior Pakistani official who worked in the nuclear weapons program would only say “these reactors are part of plutonium production for the classified program” — code for nuclear weapons development.
There is not even a ruse that the Khushab reactors would produce electrical power for energy-starved Pakistan.
“There’s no connection to the national grid, no turbine at this site,” Albright said. “These kinds of reactors can be scaled up to power, but they need more cooling towers to make them large enough for electrical generation, and we don’t see that.”
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, a leading Washington-based foreign policy and international security institute, thinks there may be a more troubling aspect to the reactor construction: a lack of organized decision making on the project.
It’s the same crisis of leadership on Islamic militancy or the economy for the Pakistani administration, says Nawaz, the author of “Crossed Swords,” a history of the Pakistani military. “It’s all working on inertia. That’s probably why they are where they are.”
The intelligence community has long had concerns about Khushab’s leadership. As George Tenet recalled in his memoir, “At the Center of the Storm,” the Central Intelligence Agency learned in the fall of 2001 that the former head of Khushab, Sultan Bashirrudan Mahmood, and the former head of the facility where bombs are designed, Chaudri Andul Majeed, had met just weeks before Sept. 11 with al-Qaida’s top leaders.
“Mahmood and Majeed met with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan,” Tenet, the former CIA chief, wrote. “There, around a campfire, they discussed how al-Qa’ida should go about building a nuclear device.”
Mahmood later admitted to Pakistani interrogators he had even provided a hand-drawn bomb design to bin Laden. According to Tenet, Mahmood told bin Laden, “The most difficult part of the process is obtaining the necessary fissile material,” to which bin Laden replied, “What if we already have the material?"
Nawaz, whose late brother was Army chief of staff under Benazir Bhutto, says the key to securing the weapons programs is still the personnel who run them.
“At the higher level and the planning level, things are probably fine,” said Nawaz, speaking of the national command authorities, “but when you get down into the weeds, then you have problems.”
He notes that the military has tried to emulate personnel evaluation systems similar to those developed by the United States, but the system is not perfect by any means.
“In the Pakistani Army itself, they were trying to filter out people with Islamist tendencies, and they have failed,” he says. “Even corps commanders are closet Islamists.” He adds that senior officers in Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, have belonged to the Tablighi Jamaat. The fundamentalist Muslim organization operates worldwide and has been accused of recruiting for radical organizations in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan.
Yet the United States has not publicly reproached Pakistan. It has quietly been helping Pakistan to develop systems that prevent detonation of nuclear weapons by anyone without the proper clearance and codes. Nawaz says that Pakistan’s security steps have not gone as far as Washington wanted but that the United States seems to be satisfied with them.
A Pakistani nuclear official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the nature of the issues, confirms the U.S. help but says he would be surprised if the weapons are as secure as the United States hopes and believes, noting “none were secured before 9/11.”
Twice in recent decades, U.S. military and economic aid has permitted Pakistan to spend billions on nuclear weapons. In the 1980s, the U.S. supplied billions to Pakistan for Afghan aid against the Soviet Union. Not coincidentally, the decade saw major advances in the Pakistani nuclear program, particularly at the Kahuta centrifuge facility outside Islamabad. Then, in the post-9/11 decade, more money was sent to Pakistan to battle al-Qaida at a time when the plutonium production program began to accelerate.
“There’s been $11 billion in aid sent to Pakistan publicly since 2001 and perhaps as much again in covert aid,” says Mian, the Princeton scientist, asserting that mingling of the money enabled spending on the weapons program.
A senior U.S. intelligence official at the time says that immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration took risks to deal with Afghanistan.
“We would be in a world of hurt ... without Pakistan. We also feared that if we didn't deal with them, we could push them further into the camp of the radicals. We had to deal with the wolves nearer the sled.”
Now, of course, all the wolves are closing in. Last week, events in Pakistan led President Barack Obama to say he has “grave concerns” about Pakistan’s stability and others in the CIA and Pentagon to discuss plans for securing or taking out Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and facilities.
“If Iran emerges with nuclear weapon, that is a problem … but a potential problem,” Albright says in assessing the dangers of proliferation.
But considering the danger that Islamic radicals pose to Pakistan’s government and its nuclear weapons program, he says, “the riskiest state has to be Pakistan, the greatest danger is from Pakistan. In terms of measurable danger, Pakistan is either right at the top or near the top of everyone’s list.”
Robert Windrem is a research fellow at the NYU Center for Law and Security.