How Not to Curb Nuclear Proliferation

President George Bush’s proposed curbs on the spread of nuclear weapons, outlined at his National Defense University address on Wednesday, and the continuing disclosures about clandestine nuclear transfers from Pakistan to North Korea, Libya and Iran, occasion a good hard look at the murky goings-on in the nuclear world.

At the heart of Bush’s proposals lies monumental hypocrisy. He wants to limit the number of nations which are allowed to produce and keep fissile materials, and to tighten the inspections regime. This is meant to stop “horizontal proliferation.” But he is prepared to do nothing about “vertical proliferation” (multiplication or refinement of existing weapons) or to fulfill the United States’ own obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Nor is he willing to roll back his dangerous plans for Ballistic Missile Defence and nuclear “bunker-buster” bombs.

Implicit in Bush’s scheme is a distinction between “responsible” and “irresponsible” nuclear weapons-states (NWSs). Thus, the US – and presumably the other four NWSs recognized under the NPT – are “responsible” states, whereas North Korea, Iraq and other “Axis of Evil” states are “irresponsible.” Even his distinction is applied inconsistently. Thus, Pakistan, whose chief nuclear expert has confessed to having transferred nuclear components and designs for making nuclear weapons, is not “irresponsible” – simply because of its temporary importance for the US as an ally against Al-Qaeda. However, Saddam’s Iraq, which was merely suspected to have mss-destruction weapons (which did not exist), attracts that appellation. But let this pass.

It is in the first place utterly illogical to divide the NWSs into supposedly “responsible” and “irresponsible” states. Possessing weapons of mass destruction and drawing up plans to use them is itself a grave act of irresponsibility. Every single NWS has the criminal intention to kill millions of non-combatant civilians with these weapons. Besides, some NWSs have taken new initiatives in making the world a more dangerous place. For instance, the US will militarize outer space through Ballistic Missile Defence. It is also planning to develop battlefield nuclear weapons, which will further raise the global nuclear danger.

The NWSs have been as deeply involved as the non-nuclear states in nuclear proliferation in direct or indirect ways – as recipients or providers of materials and technology or in condoning transfers. They are all irresponsible in different ways and to different degrees.

In the early years of the Cold War, the USSR and China collaborated on nuclear weapons technology, as did the United States and the United Kingdom. In the 1960s and 1970s, France is believed to have helped Israel acquire a nuclear capability. Israel and apartheid South Africa too collaborated on the Bomb.

Nuclear collaboration between China and Pakistan was reportedly close. India too borrowed, or procured by dubious means, vital ingredients of its nuclear weapons program from the US and Canada, while using materials from sources as diverse as the UK, US, USSR/Russia, Norway, France, China and Canada. Similarly, the US has been indulgent towards the nuclear pursuits of its allies Israel and Pakistan. And India is now keen to collaborate with the US and Israel on nuclear weapons in general and Ballistic Missile Defence in particular.

Pakistan’s is only the latest case in this long sordid story of nuclear proliferation. What Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan and his team did is of course condemnable. But so is the charade staged by Pakistan and the United States to pretend that the Pakistan-based nuclear smuggling ring was the work of “individual scientists” driven by “personal greed.” Consider the following.

The information that has come to light shows that Khan and his KRL (Khan Research Laboratories) colleagues ran a huge global network – the world’s most complex, elaborate and purposive effort ever at beating national and international non-proliferation controls. The ramifications of the network cut across continents, with a factory making centrifuge components in Malaysia, with middlemen from Germany, Sri Lanka, and Holland, with meetings in Turkey and Morocco, and hardware shipments routed through Dubai. Lubricating this network was monumental corruption.

The evidence is so damaging that the clemency granted to Khan doesn’t make sense. Khan was complicit in serious offenses, including creating the potential for crimes against humanity. And yet, he has been allowed to keep his ill-gotten wealth.

Ever since last year’s leaks suggesting Pakistan had swapped uranium enrichment centrifuges for ballistic missiles from N. Korea, the US has bought Gen Musharaf’s line that the illicit commerce was the work of “individual scientists.” But after Iran’s and Libya’s recent disclosures to the International Atomic Energy Agency, it’s hard to believe that the secret transfers suddenly stopped when Musharraf took power – despite his reported “four hundred percent assurance.”

It’s impossible for clandestine nuclear transfers to have occurred out of Pakistan’s Kahuta enrichment plant without the consent of the government, in particular, the army-controlled security apparatus. As Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and nuclear affairs expert from Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, says: “Since its inception, Pakistan’s nuclear program has been squarely under army supervision. A multi-tiered security system was headed by a lieutenant general (now, two) with all nuclear installations and personnel kept under the tightest possible surveillance.”

Some years ago, the French ambassador to Pakistan was roughed up when he strayed into an area “several miles from the enrichment facility” – diplomatic immunity notwithstanding. Even Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif couldn’t get permission to visit Kahuta.

Pakistan has always consciously traded in nuclear components and technology. Ever since it decided to counter India’s nuclear weapons status, announced through the 1974 Pokharan-I explosion, it tried to make up for its technological backwardness by procuring nuclear designs by whatever means. The critical break came in the late 1970s when Khan managed to steal designs for high-speed uranium centrifuges from a Dutch plant. The metallurgist had huge government resources and total freedom from public scrutiny. He bought restricted materials from Western Europe and the US and built the Kahuta enrichment plant. By the late 1980s, Kahuta had produced significant quantities of highly enriched uranium. As Pakistan’s nuclear capability grew, so did Khan’s personal wealth!

Three different considerations seem to have inspired the sale of Pakistan’s nuclear secrets. The rationale for transferring centrifuge designs to Iran reportedly between 1987 and 1991 was probably money. It’s hard to believe that helping Shiite Iran was ideologically compatible with the Pakistani Establishment’s Sunni ideology. The N. Korean deals were downright commercial. By the late 1980s, Pakistan had a nuclear capability, but no missiles. It bought the “Nodong” from N. Korea, and renamed it “Ghauri.” The probable rationale in the Libyan case was personal corruption.

The Pakistani nuclear transfers are “the tip” of a global iceberg, says IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradel: “It’s obvious that the international export controls have completely failed in recent years. A nuclear blackmarket has emerged, driven by fantastic cleverness. Designs are drawn in one country, centrifuges are produced in another, they are then shipped via a third country and there is no clarity about the end user … Libya and Iran made extensive use of this network.” This operation represents a serious danger of nuclear proliferation.

The danger is not confined to the global blackmarket. Huge quantities of weapons-grade fissile material routinely pass through civilian nuclear facilities the world over. Plutonium, only 5 to 8 kilos of which is enough to make a Nagasaki-type bomb, is annually traded in amounts such as tonnes between Japan and Europe. There are large quantities of MUF (material unaccounted for) in the world’s reprocessing facilities. One leaked IAEA report for the 1980s notes MUF enough for more than 20 bombs in one year alone! Then there are the states of the former Soviet Union, which have hundreds of unemployed nuclear technologists and unscrupulous businessmen willing to trade in forbidden material.

Clearly, IAEA inspections cannot take care of all of these sources of leaks. And yet they constitute the sole system of physical controls available on movements of nuclear materials. IAEA safeguards don’t even apply to all countries. Therefore, the proliferation danger will remain so long as nuclear weapons and power programs exist. There is no leakproof method of eliminating it – short of global nuclear disarmament and shift to non-hazardous technologies of power generation.

Pakistan’s nuclear pursuit cannot be separated from India’s. Pakistan’s nuclear program has been largely reactive to India’s. India too has bought, borrowed and procured by dubious means nuclear materials and technologies from sources as diverse as the UK, US, USSR/ Russia, Norway, France, China and Canada.

The source of the plutonium used in India’s 1974 test was spent fuel from CIRUS, a “research” reactor of Canadian design, to which the US donated heavy water. India reneged on its promise to use CIRUS solely for “peaceful” purposes. To escape legal censure, it hypocritically called the 1974 test a “peaceful nuclear explosion.” This was a form of cheating too.

Yet, the US today coddles India, just as it coddled Pakistan in the 1980s when it was a “frontline” state against the USSR. According to a BBC documentary, Bush took the CIA off surveillance on KRL. The same myopia is at work again – with one difference. Bush is compounding the original blunder through “vertical proliferation” on the US’s part.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.