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Pakistan’s Unique Nuclear Security Concerns
By Pervez Hoodbhoy

The nuclear age is well into its eighth decade, but a set of internationally accepted standards and protocols for ensuring the safety and security of nuclear plants, materials and weapons has yet to emerge. The International Panel on Fissile Materials (of which I am a member) estimates that stocks of the world’s deadliest materials, highly enriched uranium and plutonium, are currently sufficient for almost 200,000 nuclear weapons.1 The stocks of these materials have steadily increased year by year. One can rightfully fear that within decades, or perhaps just years, an accident or deliberate use will lead to a catastrophic nuclear event.

 

Concern with nuclear Pakistan has been greater than with most other countries. This is understandable because terrorism over the last two decades has claimed the lives of well over 50,000 Pakistanis, with the police, army and paramilitary soldiers being among the victims. Consequently, the security of the country’s nuclear weapons has come under frequent discussion. In response, Pakistani officials have gone to great lengths to assure the world that its weapons will not fall into the hands of extremist groups, but have stopped short of explaining how this can be assured. Pakistan also has a growing civilian nuclear program with reactors provided by China. These are producing ever-increasing amounts of high-level and low-level nuclear waste.

 

How great is the risk?

 

So just how risky are Pakistan’s nuclear activities? For any country, assessing risks is tricky and beset by unknowns. The Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Nuclear Security Index is a brave attempt — the first ever — to put numbers on the relative risk potential of every country. It seeks to take into consideration a variety of critical factors that affect security: on-site physical protection, control and accounting of nuclear materials, the ability to mitigate the insider threat, physical security during transport and response capabilities.

 

The 2016 NTI assessment of Pakistan’s security reads as follows:

 

Pakistan ranks near the bottom of the theft ranking in the 2016 Index. Although Pakistan passed new cyber-security regulations, the improvement was too small to change its score. In the future, Pakistan could improve its nuclear materials security conditions by:

 

• Requiring reporting of suspicious behavior and constant surveillance of inner areas of nuclear facilities to mitigate the insider threat;

• Strengthening requirements for on-site physical protection, control and accounting;

• Ensuring its requirements for security of materials during transport reflect the latest IAEA guidelines;

• Improving cyber-security requirements at nuclear facilities.

 

Pakistan could also improve its nuclear materials security conditions by ratifying key international agreements. Pakistan’s nuclear materials security conditions also remain adversely affected by increasing quantities of nuclear materials, political instability and corruption, and the presence of groups interested in and capable of illicitly acquiring nuclear materials.

 

The NTI index is indeed a serious attempt to grapple with a very difficult problem globally. A wide-ranging comparative ranking across all countries with nuclear materials and facilities is highly welcome in principle. But, at the same time, its limitations should not be underestimated.

 

Shortcomings of the Index

 

Firstly, the NTI index relies exclusively upon information that various states choose to make known. This automatically excludes the arena of nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion from its purview. NTI teams making country assessments are said not to have had access to confidential materials acquired by national technical means.2 Secondly, a state may improve its ranking by agreeing to a protocol that it has no intention to actually implement. Thirdly, subjectivity and bias is an inescapable element in assessing risk wherever political and social factors play a key role. For example, it is always possible to dispute whether a given political system is stable or unstable, and whether a culture is risk-inclined or risk-averse, and so on.

 

With regard to theft risk, the 2016 index rates Pakistan at 22nd out of 24 countries with weapons-useable nuclear materials. On the risk of sabotage of nuclear reactors, the 2016 index puts Pakistan at 36 out of 45 countries. For more details, see Table 1 and Table 2 in Ramesh Thakur’s introduction to this In Focus section (see page 96).

 

Interestingly, as poor as Pakistan’s showing was in all three NTI assessments in 2012, 2014 and 2016, many comments by readers of local newspapers expressed jubilance — because India had been assessed one notch lower! Echoing similar sentiments, one reader commented on the 2014 index that it had “proven the fact that Pakistan is a responsible nuclear power state and is well aware of the significance of nuclear safety and security mechanisms.” Others encouraged newspapers to publish more news proving that “our nuclear program is safer and better than India’s.” No comments followed after India moved one notch above Pakistan in the NTI 2016 assessment of security against theft. There appears to have been no Pakistani official response to the publication of any of the three NTI assessments, and there is no indication of how seriously it is taken by decision makers.

 

In the following, I shall attempt to make an independent assessment of the situation for Pakistan. Nuclear-weapons security issues will be dealt with separately from reactor safety and security issues.

 

Nuclear weapons security3

 

Pakistan has a rapidly growing nuclear warhead stockpile, with the estimated number of weapons having grown almost ten-fold since 2000. As of the end of 2014, Pakistan was believed to have about 130 fission weapons, based on a stockpile of about three tons of weapons-grade uranium (90 percent enriched) and about 200kg of plutonium. Seven nuclear weapons storage sites have been listed by Western observers, but others are likely to be close to major airbases and, very possibly, in tunnels burrowed into the Salt Range mountains midway between Islamabad and Lahore.

 

The facilities producing nuclear weapons are distributed over different parts of Pakistan.4 This gives greater protection against external attack but increases vulnerability to attacks from within. While the largest source of highly enriched uranium (HEU) is still the Kahuta Research Laboratory near Islamabad, a smaller plant exists at Gadwal near Wah, a military city about 65 km from Islamabad. Pakistan has also been producing plutonium since the mid-1990s at Khushab, which now houses four dedicated reactors. Nuclear-weapon fabrication is concentrated in Wah, which also has an extensive conventional armaments industry. As the stockpile increases, the risk also grows. Diverse delivery systems, deployed across large areas and in different environments, provide a special challenge. Potential threats can be grouped into three categories:

 

• Externally, Islamic militants attacking a nuclear storage site or facility with the purpose of capturing a nuclear weapon, or a sizeable amount of HEU that could be fashioned into a crude device. • Internally, Islamic elements in the army who have responsibility for protecting and operating nuclear sites, facilities or fissile materials. • A possible collaborative effort with internal and external elements.

 

After the 1998 nuclear tests, Pakistan requested senior US officials visiting Islamabad for nuclear-weapons safety systems known as Permissive Action Links and Environment Sensitive Devices that are directly integrated into the firing mechanism and electronics of a nuclear weapon and that serve to protect against unauthorized use or accidental nuclear detonations. The US declined, as these devices also make it possible for the weapons to be maintained at a higher state of alert.

 

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, US Secretary of State Colin Powell offered assistance to Pakistan to enhance the safety of its nuclear weapons. Soon after AQ Khan’s global rogue nuclear entrepreneurship came to light in 2004, President Pervez Musharraf’s government sharply reversed its earlier policy of keeping all nuclear matters under wraps and accelerated its efforts to assure the world that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were in safe hands. With American help, many safety measures — perimeter fencing, electronic locks, surveillance equipment, training in material accounting practices, etc. — were put in place. These improvements were paid for out of a US$100 million dollar fund created by the George W. Bush administration. The measures were praised by various international visitors to Pakistan. US Senator Joseph Lieberman, at the time a presidential hopeful who also chaired the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, left reassured after a briefing by Lt. Gen (ret.) Khalid Kidwai, head of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) under the civilian-led National Command Authority that oversees Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

 

There is little doubt that the SPD is greatly concerned about protecting Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and facilities, particularly from attacks by extremist groups. Such groups may want to get a nuclear weapon or weapons-useable material from Pakistan for use against some US or European city, to be delivered either by truck or ship.

 

Targets could also include Western economic interests in the Persian Gulf and nearby areas or perhaps an enemy government in an Arab country. Other groups may consider attacking an Indian city to ignite war between Pakistan and India, and some might even use it to attack a Pakistani city. These diverse goals would be consistent with the apocalyptic vision of Al-Qaida type groups. In addition, the steady rise of ISIS in Pakistan — once denied but now admitted — is a matter of some concern to the military. ISIS-affiliated groups have carried out major atrocities against Pakistani Shiites and others.

 

In 2014, Pakistan moved upward by three points on the NTI index relative to 2012. This was the largest improvement for any nuclear-armed state and was attributed to Pakistan taking steps to update its nuclear security regulations and to implement nuclear security best practices. In particular, the 2014 assessment said, new regulations improved its scores in the On-Site Physical Protection indicator.

 

While regulations and training are important, they may not make an essential difference. For example, it has been claimed that protection against nuclear theft was increased by the special training given by the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Agency (PNRA). This training, in co-ordination with SPD, would enhance “nuclear security, physical protection, emergency preparedness, detection equipment, recovery operations, and border monitoring.” But one must take this with a pinch of salt. Most organizations targeted for training — the Coast Guard, Frontier Corps, Pakistan Rangers, the Customs service, emergency and rescue services, intelligence and law enforcement agencies — are noted for their lack of professionalism and are beset by chronic problems of incompetence, cronyism and corruption. It is hard to imagine that they would be effective in stopping nuclear smuggling.

 

Divided army loyalty

 

One singular issue sets Pakistan apart from any other state. This concerns the loyalty of the people charged with managing and guarding the weapons. Post-independence, the Pakistan Army was a disciplined, modern force fashioned along British lines. Its ranks contained Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis, Christians and even a few Hindus. It could even boast of non-Muslim heroes in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. But this secular culture steadily dissipated after Army chief General Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a coup in 1977.

 

Over his 10-year reign, Zia expanded the role of the army from protecting national territory to also defending its ideology, which he saw as being a conservative form of Sunni Islam. These developments were hastened by Pakistan’s decision to join the US fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which was to be waged using Islamist militants rather than Afghan nationalists and funded by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states. This brought Pakistan’s army into a close working relationship with Islamist fighters, foreign and domestic radical Islamic political groups and the Islamic seminaries (madrassas) that radicalized a generation of young Afghans and Pakistanis.

 

Insiders can diminish or bypass most or all technical measures. To meet this threat the SPD has initiated a Personnel Reliability Program for scientists and other civilians working in the nuclear weapons complex, and a Human Reliability Program for members of the armed forces assigned to the program. The former is a battery of checks designed to ferret out individuals who might betray secrets. It relies on monitoring psychological well-being, personal finances and political views. Even after retirement, scientists are monitored by intelligence agencies.

 

While this has earned NTI points for Pakistan, there is no way of checking whether the SPD’s personnel and human reliability programs are effective or if the counter-intelligence teams have what it takes. Certainly, these teams have not been able to prevent multiple insider-led attacks on the Pakistan military. It also is unclear how the SPD officers in charge of security clearance decisions will be chosen, and whether their own commitment to fighting Islamic radicalism is genuine. In a religion that stresses its completeness, and in which righteousness is given higher value than obedience to temporal authority, there is plenty of room for serious conflict between piety and military discipline.

 

Nuclear reactor security

 

Pakistan’s nuclear reactor program began with a small 100MW Canadian-supplied natural uranium-deuterium reactor of the CANDU type, KANUPP. It was set up in 1972, but following the Indian nuclear test of 1974, Pakistan refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Thereupon Canada withdrew fuel supplies and support. At much cost and effort, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission got KANUPP running again. Nearly 30 years passed before a second reactor came on line in 2005. This was a Chinese pressurized water reactor (PWR), Chashma-I (or C-1). A similar unit, C-2, started producing electricity in mid-2011. Both reactors are small, each with a 330MW capacity. Two similar reactors, designated as C-3 and C-4, are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2016 and 2017, respectively.

 

In 2014, Pakistani authorities announced the intention to install two Chinese-supplied reactors near Karachi, home to more than one of out of 10 Pakistanis. They were not daunted by the Fukushima catastrophe of 2011, arguing that it was a freak accident and was not sufficient reason to slow down a massive expansion of nuclear capacity to 8.8GW. When challenged in court by a small group of worried citizens, the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority — a purportedly independent body that has earned NTI points for Pakistan — argued that national security was at stake and therefore the public could not be engaged in the siting decision. An environmental impact assessment was approved by unnamed but handpicked persons — rammed through in order to comply with legal formalities. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission official in charge of the new Karachi reactor project told the press: “We requested the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency not to hold a public hearing because of international politics.”5 Nuclear co-operation with China clearly overrode all other considerations. Experts from Pakistani universities are also denied permission to check radioactivity levels in uranium mines that local communities suspect of posing health hazards.

 

The authorities appear not especially concerned that spent nuclear fuel sites are a potential target for terrorists who could attempt to seize nuclear materials for use in fashioning a radiological dispersion device. As yet, Pakistan is keeping all its spent fuel in ponds without having prepared a long-term depository for them. Terrorist attacks on nuclear reactors are officially discounted, despite the fact that highly guarded military institutions have been successfully penetrated and attacked by religious terrorists. These include the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army, Mehran Navy Base, Kamra Air Force Base, Manawan Police Academy and others.

 

Lucky so far

 

There has been no reported attack against a Pakistani nuclear facility to snatch a nuclear weapon or credible evidence of nuclear-weapons material having fallen into the hands of Islamist militants or others at war with the state. Nonetheless, fears remain. It is impossible to assess these quantitatively and one cannot give a satisfactory answer to the question: How safe are Pakistani nuclear weapons and materials?

 

Pakistan’s military appears to have worked hard to secure its nuclear weapons and materials. But one cannot say how effective these efforts have been. Deep tensions within Pakistan exist as Islamist militancy and ideology challenges the state and society at large, sharpening a long standing polarization in national identity and testing loyalties already torn between faith and nation. Pakistan’s armed forces and civilian nuclear personnel are not immune to these challenges, and this includes those who manage and guard the nuclear arsenal or run and maintain the reactors. The ideological divide within Pakistan’s military, and more generally within society at large, makes safeguarding its nuclear weapons and reactors much more challenging than elsewhere. Even if the NTI index is generally useful and captures some important aspects of nuclear security, it cannot adequately address this Pakistan-specific issue.

 

Pervez Hoodbhoy is the Zohra and ZZ Ahmad Distinguished Professor of Physics and Mathematics at FC College, Lahore, having previously taught for 40 years at Quaid-e-Azam University.


Notes

1 Global Fissile Material Report 2015, International Panel on Fissile Materials, December 2015.

2 The author thanks NTI (private communication) for making these points explicit.

3 A more detailed discussion may be found in Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian, “Securing Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal — The Threat from Within,” in Nuclear Terrorism: Countering the Threat, edited by Brecht Volders and Tom Sauer (Routledge, forthcoming).

4 See for instance, Zia Mian, “Pakistan-2015,” in Assuring Destruction Forever: 2015 Edition, edited by Ray Acheson (Reaching Critical Will, New York, April 2015).

5 See “Nuclear plant project okayed after secret EIA hearing,” Dawn, Feb. 3, 2014, at www.dawn.com/news/1084496

Back to Issue
    The Nuclear Security Index is a helpful tool in assessing some aspects of nuclear security, writes Pervez Hoodbhoy, but it cannot capture the unique threats that Pakistan faces from loyalties divided between faith and nation.
    Published: Mar 25, 2016
    About the author

    Pervez Hoodbhoy is the Zohra and ZZ Ahmad Distinguished Professor of Physics and Mathematics at FC College, Lahore, having previously taught for 40 years at Quaid-e-Azam University.

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