This article remembers Pakistan’s nuclear explosions of May 28th and May 30th, 1998 and recalls the history behind Pakistan Nuclear Program.
Pakistan is one of 9 States around the world to possess nuclear weapons. Generally it is recognized that it was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZA Bhutto) who gave the go-ahead for Pakistan nuclear program in 1972 although Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was established in 1956. Going nuclear, as the main survival option for Pakistan as a country, was decided in the famous Multan meeting on January 20, 1972 that was attended by senior scientists and engineers. Earlier in 1965, ZA Bhutto made a famous announcement,
If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass and leaves for a thousand years, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own. The Christians have the bomb, the Jews have the bomb and now the Hindus have the bomb. Why not the Muslims too have the bomb?
The decision at Multan has a long history. Let us peep into the history of Pakistan nuclear program and enlist some important persons who made significant contributions.
For many it will be a surprise that the idea of Pakistan becoming a nuclear power was floated for the first time in 1948 when Mark Oliphant (an Australian physicist who played an important role in the first experimental demonstration of nuclear fusion and also in the development of nuclear weapons) sent a letter to Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah recommending that Pakistan nuclear program must be started. Interestingly, Sir Mark Oliphant served as Governor of South Australia from 1971 to 1976.
In 1953, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, announced that “Pakistan does not have a policy towards atom bombs. That led to an understanding with the US (as part of U.S. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace Initiative”) for a peaceful and industrial use of nuclear energy which also included a US$ 350,000 worth pool-type reactor. This was the beginning for Pakistan nuclear program, a program initiated in 1956. Pakistan followed a strict non-nuclear weapons policy until 1971, as PAEC under its chairman, Ishrat Hussain Usmani (1960-72; first chairman of PAEC being Dr. Nazir Ahmad, 1956-60), made no efforts to acquire nuclear fuel cycle for the purposes of an active nuclear weapons program; peaceful use of nuclear/atomic energy notwithstanding.
In 1961, the PAEC established a Mineral Center at Lahore and the basic research started. This included among other things, exploration of uranium deposits in the country with Dera Ghazi Khan becoming the first site to be identified for uranium excavation in 1963. During this time, human resource development became the major thrust of passionate Dr. Ishrat Hussain Usmani and a large number of scientists were sent abroad to pursue doctorate degrees in the field of nuclear technology.
In the meantime, Dr. Abdus Salam spearheaded the establishment of PINSTECH at Nilore and Pakistan’s first 5 MW nuclear research reactor was established (upgraded to 10 MW in 1990). A second reactor PARR-II that was funded by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) went critical in 1989 mainly for research purposes. Pervez Butt (a nuclear engineer who served as Chairman PAEC from 2001 to 2007) was an important member of the team in early 1970’s (1974, 1975) that designed the reactor. He headed the team that was responsible for producing the first cache of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) and was closely associated with Dr. Samar Mubarakmand in establishing a neutron particle accelerator.
Dr. Abdus Salam (as advisor to President Ayub Khan) was instrumental in negotiating the first commercial nuclear power plant for the country and a Canadian firm provided 137MW reactor that was installed at Karachi and named Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP). The reactor became operational in November 1972.
In December 1965, Mr. Bhutto (then Foreign Minister) met Munir Ahmad Khan in Vienna who apprised the former of the need for Pakistan nuclear program vis-à-vis India’s fast growing military nuclear program. Munir Khan was of the view that a nuclear India would further undermine and threaten Pakistan’s security, and thus for her survival Pakistan nuclear program became more than a necessity. Being convinced with the views of Mr. Khan, Mr. Bhutto aggressively advocated the initiation of nuclear weapons programs. Muhammad Shoaib (then Finance Minister) and Dr. Usmani (Chairman PAEC) were reportedly averse to Pakistan nuclear program. However, Dr. Usmani’s contribution to the nuclear energy program is also fundamental to the development of atomic energy for civilian purposes including agriculture, medicine and industry.
Understanding the sensitivity of the issue, Bhutto arranged a meeting of Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan with President Ayub Khan in December 1965 in London. Munir Khan pointed out to the President that facilities must be acquired to make Pakistan nuclear program go live allowing the country nuclear weapons capabilities. However, the president rejected the idea point blank, apparently, because of the finances involved (US$150 million, a meagre sum according to the present standards but unaffordable at that time in view of the president).
In 1969, Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority agreed to supply Pakistan with a Nuclear Reprocessing Plant with a meagre capacity of producing 360 grams weapons-grade plutonium per year. Dr. Ahsan Mubarak was sent to the UK for relevant training. When back, Mubarak’s team advised the government not to acquire the whole reprocessing plant but only key parts important to building the weapons, while the plant would be built indigenously. Thus the work on establishing a pilot-scale uranium processing facility (4000 kg capacity per day) started in 1970 at Dera Ghazi Khan.
ZA Bhutto appointed Munir Ahmad Khan as Chairman Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission in 1972 (1972-1991) with the task to have the atomic bomb ready by the end of 1976. In December of the same year, Dr. Salam established Theoretical Physics Group (TPG) that marked the beginning of Pakistan Nuclear Program aimed at developing nuclear deterrence capabilities. His team consisted of Riazuddin, Fayyazuddin, Masud Ahmad, Asghar Qadir and Faheem Hussain. Incidentally, however, Salam said goodbye to Pakistan in 1974 as a protest for being declared a non-Muslim (Ahmadi) hence resulting in a major setback to Pakistan Nuclear Program.
After departure of Dr. Salam, Munir Ahmad had to lead TPG. Responding to India’s nuclear test of 1974, he launched uranium program. Dr. Khalil Qureshi was responsible for most of the calculations in the uranium division at PAEC, which undertook research on several methods of enrichment, including gaseous diffusion, jet nozzle and molecular laser isotope separation techniques. Dr. Khalil Qureshi was a major contributor to Pakistan Nuclear Program especially related to industrial level chemical and metallurgical techniques for converting UF6 to solid metal.
In early 1970’s, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood was appointed as director of the enrichment division with responsibilities to devise methods for uranium enrichment. He recommended gas centrifuge as an economical method. Earlier in late 1960’s, Naeem Ahmad Khan who established the Nuclear Physics Division had undertaken pioneering work on gas centrifugation together with his colleagues Muhammad Hafeez Qureshi and Ghulam Dastagir Alam Qasmi. Naeem Khan participated in the development of an atomic bomb throughout the 1970s and also witnessed the cold test of a nuclear device on 11th March 1983 near Kirana Hills, Sargodha.
In many respects, Muhammad Hafeez Qureshi (a mechanical engineer) is considered to be one of the chief architects Pakistan Nuclear Program. Together with Zaman Sheikh from Defence Science and Technology Organization (DESTO), he was tasked with developing the mechanical components, tampers and optical lenses required for detonation of the weapon besides looking at the chemistry of the implosion reactions. Due to lack of relevant facilities at PINSTECH, Dr. Salam, Munir Ahmad Khan and Riazuddin visited Wah Ordnance Factories (Metallurgical Laboratories) and held talks with Lt. General Qamar Ali Mirza. An agreement was reached to develop complex optical lenses and high-explosive chemical materials and triggering mechanism; the task was completed in 1979.
The team efforts were successful in the earlier implosion-type weapon design in 1977-78 that culminated in a cold test in 1983 under the supervision of Ishfaq Ahmad Khan (was Chairman PAEC 1991-2001) who himself played an influential role in physics and mathematical calculations in the critical mass of the weapons, and did theoretical work on the implosion method used in the weapons. Till 1994, 24 more cold tests of various nuclear weapon designs were conducted including tactical designs for delivery of warheads by Pakistan Air Force fighter jets [this program evolved towards the boosted fission weapon design eventually used in the famous Chagai-I tests of 1998].
Earlier on, in consequence of the report by Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood on gas centrifugation as a feasible option for uranium enrichment, he was given the task to interview Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan (AQ Khan) in Switzerland on behalf of President Bhutto in 1974. In 1975, the gas centrifugation proposal was approved and the work on uranium enrichment started with Mahmood being the director and AQ Khan as the major player in establishing centrifugation technology. AQ Khan could not get along with Mahmood therefore, the latter was transferred to KANUPP while the former took charge of the Kahuta gas enrichment facility under military control. Thus, in a way, Mr. Mahmood was the pioneer in introducing gas centrifugation for uranium enrichment although AQ Khan carried forward the program to greater heights because of his expertise in centrifuges for which he was inducted into the system. He managed to get Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) established at Kahuta under his own supervision to develop uranium enrichment capability. Thus Kahuta project became pivotal to developing the capability of detonating a nuclear device, bring Pakistan Nuclear Program a step closer to a functioning nuclear weapon. The project was overseen by a board consisting of Mr. Aftab Ghulam Nabi Kazi (Secretary General, Finance), Mr. Ghulam Ishaq Khan (Secretary General, Defence) and Mr. Agha Shahi (Secretary General, Foreign Affairs). Major General Ali Nawab from core of engineers of Pakistan Army was attached to the program. In General Zia’s regime, Lt. General Zahid Ali Akbar was assigned the task to supervise Pakistan Nuclear Program.
To acquire the necessary equipment and material for Pakistan Nuclear Program in pursuit of nuclear weapons, AQ Khan developed a reliable procurement system. The army engineer and ex-technical liaison officer, Major-General Syed Ali Nawab oversaw KRL operations in the 1970s including procurement of electronics. Despite these efforts, it is commonly acknowledged that KRL suffered setbacks until PAEC provided technical assistance (Dr. AQ Khan disputes this opinion). In any case, KRL achieved modest enrichment of Uranium by 1978 and was ready to detonate an HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium) bomb by 1984, while PAEC reportedly had already succeeded in producing weapons grade fissile material by 1978. In fact, in 1976, Dr. GD Alam at PAEC was able to rotate the first centrifuge at 30,000 rpm while in 1978 at Chaklala Science Laboratories (SCL). Dr. GD. Alam and Anwar Ali (Chairman PAEC 2007-2009) demonstrated the separation of U238 and U235 that was witnessed by Dr. AQ Khan as well.
Uranium enrichment through centrifugation is reportedly tedious and not generally used for weapon use. However, Dr. AQ Khan was successful in doing so and thus dubbed as the Father of the Uranium Bomb. In a way, it was KRL’s HEU that ultimately created the nuclear chain reaction and successful detonations at Chagai. Ultra-centrifugation for obtaining U235 cannot be carried out simply by putting natural uranium through the centrifuges. It requires complete mastery over the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, beginning at uranium mining and refining, production of uranium ore or yellow cake, conversion of ore into uranium dioxide (UO2) (used to make nuclear fuel for natural uranium reactors like Khushab and KANUPP), conversion of UO2 into uranium tetrafluoride (UO4) and then into uranium hexafluoride (UF6). All these steps were carried out by PAEC and mastered at its Khushab Nuclear Complex. Further processing is done at Kahuta where an estimated 10,000–20,000 centrifuges are dedicated for this purpose with a capacity of 75-100 kg HEU per year.
Pakistan Nuclear Program saw growth in 1979, when Abdul Hafeez Qureshi worked with Munir Ahmad Khan for the construction of third nuclear reactor PARR-III. The reactor’s designing process was led by Munir Ahmad Khan and Qureshi, while construction was carried out by Army’s corps of engineering. This was in a way the first prototype plutonium separation facility that went critical in 1980 and produced the first batch of weapon-grade plutonium in 1982.
During the formative years of Pakistan Nuclear Program (1970’s and 1980’s), Anwar Ali [being a pioneering member of Nuclear Physics Division (NPD)], played a crucial role by developing the electronic-nuclear protection devices into the missiles. Besides, Anwar Ali is credited with the development of computer codes and ultra-precision equipment for the missile deterrence program, along with playing a key role in developing guidance and control systems for Pakistan’s solid fuel Shaheen missiles. While working at KRL, Anwar Ali installed high powered and high-tech computer program to electronically monitor the facility from in and out round the clock.
Last but not the least, let us remember Dr. Samar Mubarakmand, who was known for his research in gamma spectroscopy and development of linear accelerator. As member of Nuclear Physics Division (NPD) in early 1970s, he made immense contribution to physics calculations required for implosion method and was appointed as the Director of the Fast Neutron Physics Group in 1974 in recognition of his expertise in chemical engineering and experimental physics. During the same time, he collaborated with Hafeez Qureshi in designing the tamper and neutron related issues following detonation especially regarding relative simultaneity. In 1978, Mubarakmand built a linear accelerator at PINSTECH and then headed teams responsible for conducting experimental testing of atomic weapon systems including countdown for the detonation process. A comprehensive work on civil engineering spread over 5-6 years was carried out for potential tests sites and a milestone was reached on 11 March 1983 when Mubarakmand led the testing teams to supervise the first cold test. Before this, he paid a visit to Chagai Hills (Chagai Hills would later become the test site for Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb explosions) in 1981 along with Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad (Chairman PAEC 1991-2001). In 1987, he participated in the development of explosive lenses and triggering mechanism for the fission weapon in collaboration with Hafeez Qureshi and Zaman Sheikh. He personally supervised the test preparations at Chagai Hills and on May 19th, 1998, Dr. Mubarakmand led some 140 experimental physicists of his team to oversee the preparations at Chagai. He personally supervised the complete assembly of all five nuclear devices and walked through the tunnels. On 28 May 1998, Mubarakmand led the countdown of the tests, making Pakistan Nuclear Program a glowing success and declaring the country as a Nuclear State.
The credit of allowing the nuclear tests vis-à-vis international pressures and feared sanctions etc. certainly goes to then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mian Muhamad Nawaz Sharif (also the current Prime Minister of Pakistan). As reported in the media PM acknowledged that the tests were carried out in reaction to Indian nuclear tests,
If India had not exploded the bomb, Pakistan would not have done so, we had no choice because of public pressure.
Shortly after the tests, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed the nation on television and said that the five nuclear tests conducted by India made this action inevitable,
Today is history in the making. Today, God has given us the opportunity to take this step for our country’s defence which is inevitable. We never wanted to participate in this nuclear race. We have proved to the world that we would not accept what was dictated to us.
The prime minister said that Pakistan’s response was fully supported by its people, and attacked the international community for a weak response to India’s tests. The decision to conduct tests took place at a high level meeting attended by all concerned. Opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto also spoke emphatically in favour of atomic tests. The tests happened in spite of an offer by then US President Bill Clinton of some lucrative aid package. However, popular public opinion in Pakistan was in favor of the nuclear blasts and the Prime Minister faced no hesitation in giving the go-ahead.
Pakistan not only mastered uranium enrichment technology that was put to test on May 28, 1998, but undertook significant strides in plutonium-based weapons. Pakistan’s plutonium capability, claimed to have existed since the early 1970s, is indigenous, and developed under the scientific directorship of Munir Ahmad Khan. Alongside the uranium enrichment route, Pakistan pursued the Plutonium Program employing electromagnetic isotope separation program spearheaded by Dr. GD Allam (a theoretical physicist) at the New Laboratories adjacent to Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH), currently known as Pakistan Institute of Engrineering and Applied Sciences (PIEAS).
Pakistan’s first indigenous plutonium reactor (40–50 MW, thermal) was built at Khushab, Joharabad in April 1998 by Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood (Nuclear Engineer and Islamic Scholar). Various Pakistani industries contributed to 82% of the reactor’s construction. This heavy water reactor is reportedly capable of producing 8 to 10 kg of plutonium per year that is sufficient for at least one nuclear weapon. The reactor could also produce tritium (H3), that if it loaded with Lithum (Li), can significantly increase the lethality of a nuclear weapon. Khushab’s plutonium production capacity has allowed Pakistan to develop lighter and easier to deliver weapons (tactical battle field weapons so to say). With the development of new reactors, it will be possible to produce enough plutonium for 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year. On May 30th, 1998, Pakistan did prove its plutonium capability in a scientific experiment and sixth nuclear test at Kharan Desert (codename Chagai-II). This was a successful test of sophisticated, compact, but powerful plutonium bomb designed to be carried by aircraft, vessels, and missiles.
Pakistan is reportedly increasing its capacity to produce plutonium at its Khushab nuclear facility. It is also believed (rather claimed) that Pakistan is spiking her plutonium-based nuclear weapons with tritium as merely few grams of tritium can result in 3-4 fold increase in the explosive yield. Citing new satellite images of the Khushab facility, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggests construction of several (3-5) reactors on this site. It is hypothesized that one or more of these reactors could be dedicated to Tritium production although this hydrogen isotope is an essential by-product of plutonium production.
All Pakistani bomb designs are implosion-type weapons typically using between 15-25 kg of U-235 for their cores. However, for a similar device, only 2-4 kg of plutonium is needed. Additionally, a few grams of tritium (a by-product of plutonium production reactors and thermonuclear fuel) can increase the overall yield of the bombs by a factor of three to four as mentioned before. So if Pakistan wants to be a nuclear power with an operational weapon capability, both first and second strike, based on assured strike platforms like ballistic and cruise missiles (unlike aircraft), the only solution is with plutonium, which has been the first choice of every country that built a nuclear arsenal. Reportedly, Pakistan has been developing smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons exclusively for the battlefield as part of a full-spectrum deterrence capability to deter all forms of aggression (Nasr missile system being the example). According to a U.S. congressional report, Pakistan has devised a strategy for surviving a nuclear war and has built hard and deeply buried storage and launch facilities to retain a second strike capability in a nuclear war. According to General Anthony Zinni (US CENTCOM), long time assumptions, that India had an edge in the South Asian strategic balance of power, were questionable at best. Don’t assume that the Pakistan’s nuclear capability is inferior to the Indians. It is also certain that Pakistan has built road-mobile missiles, state-of-the-art air defences around strategic sites, and other concealment measures. In 1998, Pakistan had ‘at least six secret locations’ and since then it is believed Pakistan may have many more such secret sites. In 2008, the United States admitted that it did not know where all of Pakistan’s nuclear sites are located. Pakistani defence officials have continued to rebuff and deflect American requests for more details about the location and security of the country’s nuclear sites.
In regards to the international cooperation in Pakistan Nuclear Program, People’s Republic of China (PRC) is alleged as the major collaborator, especially in conducting putative (cold) tests in 1980’s. However, China has always denied such collaboration in very categorical terms. Besides, it is hard to believe (being technically sensitive matter), that any country will allow another country to use her tests site to explode the devices. According to Dr. Samar Mubarakmand cold tests (codename Kirana-I) were carried out at a site built by the Core of Engineers of Pakistan army. However, for peaceful use of nuclear technology, China does assist Pakistan. Besides China, some other countries are also accused of collaborating in Pakistan Nuclear Program. These include Belgium, Finland, Japan, Sweden, North Korea, and Turkey. According to some recent reports, North Korea had been secretly supplying Pakistan with ballistic missile technology in exchange for nuclear weapons technology.
There are somewhere between 120,000 to 130,000 people directly involved in Pakistan Nuclear Program, and Ballistic Missile Program, a figure considered extremely large for a developing country. This number does not include manpower from the private firms that contribute directly or indirectly to Pakistan Nuclear Program. It would seem, therefore, that weakness in conventional war machinery vis-à-vis India, Pakistan is endeavouring to meet the challenge through non-conventional approach.
Estimates of Pakistan’s stockpile of nuclear warheads vary but sure enough the number could be over 100. However, the actual size of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is hard for experts to gauge owing to the extreme secrecy which surrounds Pakistan Nuclear Program.You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ for more updates. Otherwise fill in the subscription box above, or subscribe to our RSS Feed.