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Dr A Q Khan how Pak's nuke programme came about

August 06, 2009 17:50 IST
Almost 33 years ago, on July 31, 1976, to be exact, the uranium enrichment project was established by late prime minister Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto as an independent organisation. This was done on the advice of Mr A G N Kazi, Mr Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Mr Agha Shahi and General Syed Imtiaz Ali. It was named the Engineering Research Laboratories and I was appointed its head. The history of Kahuta is known to many and the achievements made there are known to the whole nation. On August 1, 1986 -- on its 10th anniversary -- I had published an article in a national daily detailing this challenging endeavour to the nation. For those who were too young at the time, I am reproducing it here.

Ten years ago, our government established the Engineering Research Laboratories at Rawalpindi with the task of setting up a uranium enrichment plant based on the ultracentrifuge method. In the following lines, I would like to reflect on the early part of our work and our efforts during that time to make Pakistan self-sufficient in this most important and invaluable technology of isotope separation.

The Kahuta plant has put Pakistan on the world nuclear map and has laid a solid foundation for our self-sufficiency in the future in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The enriched uranium (3-3.5 per cent) being produced at Kahuta will be used as fuel in our future nuclear power reactors. It will save the country hundreds of millions of dollars and will also ensure our self-reliance.

The use of the two atomic bombs by the United States in Japan laid the foundation for a mad nuclear arms race, which is still going on. The Russians, genuinely suspicious of American intentions, went all out to have their own atomic and hydrogen bombs. This was followed by Great Britain, France and China.

While these nations were busy manufacturing and stockpiling nuclear bombs, simultaneous attempts were underway to use the same immense power of the atom to produce power. The US, Russia, Canada and the United Kingdom succeeded in making nuclear reactors for this purpose and there was a widely published campaign of atoms for peace.

However, knowledgeable and sane people never overlooked the fact that there was a grave danger of nuclear weapons proliferation with the spread of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. After all, there is only a weak, transparent screen between the two. Once you know how to make reactors, how to produce plutonium and how to reprocess it, it becomes a relatively easy task to produce nuclear weapons.

Concerted efforts of the Third World countries, supported by some genuinely worried Western countries like Sweden, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, etc led to a consensus on the urgent need for an international agreement to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. This resulted in the establishment of the now world-renowned Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970. About 130 countries have so far signed this treaty despite its highly discriminatory nature, as it allowed the nuclear-weapon powers to accumulate and enhance their stockpiles of nuclear weapons while putting severe restrictions on even the peaceful utilisation of nuclear power by the have-nots.

In 1964, the People's Republic of China became the last nation to join the nuclear weapons club before the NPT came into existence in 1970. China had serious security problems from both the US and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and had no alternative but to go nuclear to safeguard her integrity, independence and sovereignty. Things had settled down nicely and there was a status quo on this matter when, on May 18, 1974, India shattered this delicate balance and tranquillity by exploding a nuclear bomb in Rajasthan.

The sad part of the whole story was that, unlike China, India had no such serious security problems (it had a Friendship Treaty with the USSR) and that it violated a sacred trust by clandestinely using the Canadian reactor and American heavy water to make this weapon. Nothing damaged the NPT as much as the Indian nuclear explosion did.

As far as Pakistan was concerned, the whole story now started. As a result of the Indian betrayal of trust, the Canadians abruptly cut off all nuclear cooperation with us. Fuel and heavy water were refused for the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant and internationally made solemn agreements were turned into useless litter. We were penalised for the mischief done by India. All efforts by the government of Pakistan to impress upon the Canadians to honour their solemnly made pledges failed. Pakistan was left high and dry.

To complete the humiliations of a developing Third World country, the French backed down from an agreement made under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was an international agreement made between two sovereign states with the IAEA as referee. The Americans succeeded in arm-twisting the French and the French, who normally take great pride in their independence, went back on their international agreement. The reprocessing plant was going to be under IAEA safeguards and there was neither the remotest possibility, nor any intention, of misusing this facility for any non-peaceful purposes.

It was at this stage that a Third World developing country -- Pakistan -- took up the challenge and decided to go alone and be self-reliant. In July 1976, our government decided to go all-out to master enrichment technology and to ensure self-reliance on our own fuel for all further light water nuclear power reactors. The Engineering Research Laboratories were set up in July 31, 1976, to undertake the enormous task of putting up an indigenous enrichment plant.

I had just returned from Europe after almost 15 years. I had studied at the famous Technical University of West Berlin, at the prestigious Technological University of Delft, Holland, and at the famous and old University of Leuven, Belgium, and had published many research papers. I had worked for a number of years in Holland and had specialised in uranium enrichment technology. I was young, had a doctorate of engineering in physical metallurgy (a most suitable discipline for handling sophisticated technological projects), had relevant experience and was thus well equipped to deal with the job.

I accepted the challenge and got down to business. I gathered together a team of highly dedicated, efficient and patriotic scientists and engineers and we went all out to do the job as quickly as possible. As one can imagine, it was not an easy task. The scientists and engineers whom I had recruited had never heard of a centrifuge, even though some of them had PhD degrees.

A country that could not make sewing needles, good and durable bicycles or even ordinary durable metalled roads was embarking on one of the latest and most difficult technologies. Of the whole nuclear cycle, enrichment is considered to be the most difficult and most sophisticated technology. It was a real challenge to me and to my colleagues.

The problem was quite clear to us. We were not going to find out new laws of nature, but were dealing with a very difficult and sophisticated engineering technology. It was not possible for us to make each and every piece of equipment or component within the country. Attempts to do so would have killed the project in the initial stage. We devised a strategy by which we would go all out to buy everything that we needed in the open market to lay the foundation of a good infrastructure and would then switch over to indigenous production as and when we had to".

To be continued

Courtesy: The News, Pakistan

Dr A Q Khan