On the trail of the A-Bomb makers; Antinuclear battle nears climax
Paradise Point, Pakistan, and Bombay, India — A crucial, unprecedented battle is being fought out in world capitals to stop an ambitious third-world country from building its own nuclear weapons-and detonating them.
It is the sternest test yet of whether the world possesses the means to stop or slow the spread of nuclear weapons into unstable countries.
The technology is no longer secret: Any determined country with enough money to spend can acquire it. The battle now being waged-mostly in secret-is to see if a range of international safeguards can be clamped down to prevent plutonium created in a peaceful reactor in Karachi, Pakistan, from being secretly diverted to fabricate nuclear explosives.
The safeguards include remote-control cameras, sensitive automatic counting devices, and more frequent visits by international inspectors.
Today this newspaper presents many details for the first time. They illustrate the complexity of stopping a determined country with sufficient money and skills from acquiring nuclear weapons. Pakistan happens to be the most obvious example of such a country today.
The battle is fast approaching a climax.
Some ground has been gained. But victory is still far from won. Unless it is won soon, it will be too late. Pakistan will have its nuclear device-perhaps even within 12 months. It may already have enough plutonium to explode one.
The story rivals a paperback thriller in suspense and intrigue. It has diplomats and scientists around the world sitting on the edges of their chairs.
In Pakistan, the battleground itself looks highly unlikely at first glance. I have just driven across it-a deserted stretch of coastline on the eastern edge of the Arabian Sea incongruously called Paradise Point. Camels pull carts. Donkeys wander. Women haul water from wells in yellow plastic buckets. A hot sun shimmers on a bright blue sea. Fishing boats bob. In the distance, a cluster of drab gray concrete buildings rises from the sand, encircled by barricades and barbed wire.
As I drove toward the cluster, I seemed to be utterly alone-yet a private US television film crew which tried to set up a camera outside the front fence the other day was surounded by guards and intelligence agents within two minutes, manhandled, and ordered away.
The gray buildings comprise a nuclear reactor-the only commercial one in all of Pakistan. Its ostensible purpose: to generate electricity for the millions who live in Karachi, whose skyline is faintly visible around the bay.
But at this writing, analysts, official, and scientists in a number of countries greatly fear that the plutonium generated as a by product in the reactor's fuel rods is being diverted for use in a nuclear device.
A number of scientists and officials are gloomily certain that President Zia ul-Hiq will be able to detonate a device, if he wants to, before the end of 1982 . He will be under enormous temptation to do so-to impress the Muslim world, of which he is part; to convince India that he is a diplomatic force to be reckoned with; to impress his own rivals inside Pakistan; and to warn the United States that although Pakistan is an ally against the Soviets in Afghanistan, it is an ally with a mind of its own.
Pakistan is by no means the only country in the world on the threshold of making nuclear weapons. This series will also look at the others. Israel is widely believed to have 20 or 30 already. South Africa is said either to have them or to be able to put them together quickly. India detonated a nuclear blast in 1974 and could react to a Pakistani detonation by loosing an even more powerful device-a hydrogen-bomb type.
There are other countries besides: Libya and Iraq, Argentina and Brazil, South Korea and Taiwan. Various methods are being used to keep them out of the nuclear club. Yet all will probably be able to build nuclear devices by the early 1990's.
Israel took matters into its own hands, shattered all precendent, and bombed Iraq last June 7 to stop its nuclear program.
The rest of the world is being more cautious in its efforts to halt proliferation. President Reagan, for instance, is trying to walk a policy tightrope. Ruling out military action so far, he has swung away from former President Jimmy Carter's approach of cutting off nuclear fuel and technology to countries that won't accept full international inspection.
But the American President does want to stop nuclear weapons from spreading. He wants the US to be a reliable supplier of nuclear technology. He thinks that will make countries like Pakistan feel more secure-if combined with economic and military aid (in Pakistan's case, a plan for $3.2 billion over the next six years).
The Reagan experiment, just beginning, is a major part of US carrot-and-stick campaign to stop Pakistan and other countries from going nuclear. The stick: if Pakistan detonates, it risks losing any American aid. Congress must appropriate aid each year. Under current law, no country is elegible for US aid unless the president certifies that is is not pushing toward building a nuclear device.
(There is, however, provision for a waiver if the president can convince Congress that it is in the national interest to continue aid to a country even once it has detonated a device. In any case, legislation on this issue is still pending.)
Meanwhile, the other part of the unprecedented battle consists of secret pressure from the US and other member countries of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. Pakistan is a member of the IAEA. Its Karachi reactor is already visited by Vienna inspectors, because the fuel originally came from Canada-and Canada insisted on such inspections as a condition of sale.
But since September 1980 Vienna has wanted much more surveillance.
Part of the reason is that Pakistan's rush toward a bomb has been an open secret for a decade. This article also gives details of how it has clandestinely acquired expertise.
Alarmingly, Pakistan has two tracks to a bomb, not just one.
The first: using the Karachi reactor to irradiate uranium fuel rods with neutrons and thus produce plutonium, it can them be chemically extracted ("reprocessed") for use in a nuclear weapon.
The second: enriching natural uranium in a complex series of ways to turn it into weapons-grade explosive. This is done by separating out the isotope in uranium that is most useful for splitting, or fission: uranium 235. In nature, U-235 makes up only 0.7 percent of uranium. For a weapon, scientists need uranium that consists of 90 percent or more of U-235-though a lesser percentage could also work.
For some years, Pakistan galloped along the enrichment road, trying to buy a complete plant (from France). When that was blocked by pressure from the US and elsewhere, it set up dummy companies to buy plant components under cover.
Lately the enrichment effort has run into trouble. But Israeli sources in Tel Aviv said that they believe an enrichment plant at Kahuta is well advanced; that uranium hexafluoride gas is being separated into U-235 isotopes in 1,000 spinning metal "cascades" or cylinders.
The Pakistani aim was 5,000 to 10,000 such cascades and a very high degree of enrichment.
US and other sources, however, doubt Pakistan has nearly that many cascades working. They say Pakistan has at least a decade of work ahead of it to make the cascades operate properly. It is a tricky business, requiring constant spinning speeds (achieved by regulating electric current with devices known as "inverters") and delicate precision in a dozen other fields.
"It took the West Germans 20 years to master it," said one US source, "the Dutch, 25, and the British, 30."
This means that the second route to the bomb is now the key one-making plutonium in the Karachi reactor (known as Karachi Nuclear Power Plant, or KANUPP for short), and reprocessing it.
Scientists and intelligence sources say Pakistan has a small reprocessing plant in operation. Because Pakistan has not signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970, the reprocessor is not under inspection by Vienna.
What really made Vienna inspectors and officials sit up and take notice was an announcement in September 1980 that Pakistan could now make its own fuel rods (from natural uranium bought from the Saharan state of Niger, it is thought, and reportedly from Libya, which also buys from Niger. (See the next article in this series.)
This seemingly routine announcement was actually a bombshell for the IAEA. Shipments of Canadian fuel to Karachi could easily be checked: Canada told Vienna how much it had shipped, and Vienna inspectors counted the fuel rods at KANUPP to make sure the numbers agreed.
But if Pakistan makes its own rods, then Vienna depends on Pakistan's own figures for how many it has made and put into KANUPP. Given Pakistan's track record, and given Vienna's standard procedure of assuming plutonium has been diverted until it discovers otherwise, the need for more surveillance on KANUPP became plain-and urgent.
Canada cut off its own fuel to KANUPP in December 1976. It was suspicious of Pakistani activities, and alarmed that its fuel had helped India detonate a nuclear device in 1974.
Vienna is determined to find out what the Pakistanis are doing with their own fuel rods-and there's another crucial reason for urgency. The KANUPP reactor, originally supplied by Canada, is a special type. Fuel rods can be loaded in and taken out while the reactor keeps running. (Technically it is called a CANDU reactor, using deuterium.) Only short "burns" are required for generating plutonium in the rods.
Pakistan could be loading its own fuel rods, exposing them to neutrons in the reactor for short periods, unloading them, and extracting the plutonium created.
"We have evidence of short burns at KANUPP now," one well-placed Indian diplomat told the Monitor.
Indignantly, the head of Pakistan's nuclear program, Dr. Munir Khan denies any such thing. But suspicions are widespread.
This newspaper has pieced together exclusive details of the battle so far to put KANUPP under stricter safeguards.
The details were provided in part by officials in a number of countries who felt publicity of the kind provided by a series like this might be more effective than pressure in secret.
The IAEA has already installed its own kind of special surveillance cameras at crucial areas in KANUPP. Specially adapted Minolta 8mm movie cameras, firing every eight to 10 minutes, are mounted in pairs, one wide angle, one telephoto, in sealed glass-fronted boxes.
They point down at the storage pond into which spent fuel rods are dumped after being taken from the reactor. They also cover a decontamination bay.
Inspectors visit KANUPP, check the seals, unload the film, develop it in a darkroom provided on site, check the film, reload the cameras, and reseal them in the boxes.
But the September 1980 announcement about locally made fuel rods caused Vienna to come up with a series of new requests. It wants cameras at the spent-fuel bay relocated and an extra camera installed. It wants the decontamination bay camera relocated.
It wants two new sets of cameras pointed at the maintenance area for the fueling machine (where plutonium might be siphoned off.) It wants trays of spent fuel rods stacked a different way in the storage pond. It also wants inspectors to be able to take film from cameras back to Vienna for checking if they need to.
Above all, it wants so-called "bundle counters" installed to record automatically how many times rods are taken in and out. These counters have just been developed and are being tested in Canada.
Vienna has also asked that inspectors visit Paradise Point much more often.
For months, Pakistan dug in its heels and refused to cooperate.
"Why single us out?" Pakistani official asked in private. "We have cooperated in the past. We have an agreement with the IAEA. We've abided by that agreement. Besides, what are the Indians doing? They make their own fuel rods. Are you putting pressure on them?"
Vienna officials replied that India would cooperate only in tandem with Pakistan. "Please help us make India conform," they pleaded.
Privately, officials complained that the agreement between Vienna and Pakistan was an old one, signed in 1971. Pakistan, they said, ought to agree to extra "containment and survaillances" (the technical term) as other nonsignatories of the Nonproliferation Treaty had done.
Vienna was also alarmed at intelligence information being sent in by the US and India; a shaft for an underground nuclear test dug in th Baluchistan mountains; secret purchases of sensitive technology from 14 countries; a large budget for nuclear activities which Pakistani delegates to the IAEA don't mention.
On Sept. 17 of this year, the IAEA director general, Dr. Sigvard Eklund of Sweden, took an unprecedented step. He told the IAEA board of governors in private (as the Pakistani governor listened impassively) that he was no longer able to ensure complete reliability of inspections for some countries. He did not name them, but sources present at the meeting told the Monitor everyone knew the main target was Pakistan.
Since then, unprecedented diplomatic pressure has been exerted on Pakistan.
"It is a test of Vienna's effectiveness," commented one agency source. "Already the fact the IAEA exists has spotlighted that one country is refusing to comply with safeguards. That's something."
It has been a time of suspense for Vienna. Israel, and two former IAEA inspectors, have sharply attacked safeguards following the Israeli raid on the Osirak reactor in Baghdad. But Vienna officials believe safeguards are vital to dissuade would-be atom bomb makers. Any undermining of safeguards, they say, endangers the entire world.
The IAEA's only remedy, if defied further, is to notify the United Nations Security Council in New York that a county is blocking requested surveillance. What would happen next isn't known: The IAEA has never gone that far.
In fact, Dr. Eklund's statement of Sept. 17 is said to be the first time he has even told the board of governors he had a surveillance problem.
Tension mounted as the months ticked by. The US exerted its own pressure, with the Reagan administration warning President Zia that any nuclear detonation would mean a probable cutoff of US economic aid and military sales.
"KANUPP is the only part of the plutonium fuel cycle we inspect," a senior Vienna agency source told the Monitor. "It's crucial we inspect it more thoroughly-for our credibility, for the credibility of nonproliferation."
According to one report, Vienna inspectors visited KANUPP Oct. 12 and 13 and asked that two cameras be moved. They repeated the request for "bundle counters." Pakistan refused.
Dr. Eklund referred to the situation again, in veiled terms, as he opened the UN General Assembly debate on the agency on Nov. 10 in New York.
In fact, this newspaper has learned, Pakistan had already made some concessions.
It had accepted silica gel treatment on surveillance cameras to prevent their breaking down in the high heat and humidity at Paradise Point. It agreed to some extra cameras. It accepted extra docimeters, which measure gamma radiation. It agreed to more frequent inspections. It even installed a closed-circuit video system around the spent-fuel bay.
But, at this writing it has not fulfilled Vienna's key demands. It has simply agreed to talk about them: extra 8 mm. cameras and relocated cameras, "bundle counters," and even more frequent inspections.
Time is running out. If Pakistan is diverting plutonium, it is doing so now. Pakistan could be stalling, to allow it to make enough plutonium to make a single device which President Zia could then detonate at will. Then Pakistan could accept extra safeguards, in the knowledge that its enrichment plant would be able to produce more nuclear explosive fuel soon.
Pakistan's agreement to detailed talks on extra cameras, on bundle counters, and other measures. This has heartened IAEA officials - but there's a long way to go yet.
Vienna believes extra inspection visits will be allowed and bundle counters installed. Some US sources are skeptical. Cameras remain a particular problem.
As made clear by Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, Niaz A. Naik Nov. 10, Pakistan objects to an extra camera on the spent-fuel bay and insists that "normal operations" in the maintenance area for the fueling machine cannot be upset by extra surveillance.
Developed film from the cameras will not be allowed out of Pakistan (official reason: in case it reveals industrial secrets). Trays of spent rods will not be rearranged to meet Vienna demands. Experts would discuss relocating cameras. They would "consider" bundle counters "in the light of our agreements with the agency" - deliberately vague phrasing.
Revealed here for the first time is the fact that Western officials in Islamabad suspect Pakistan is using the Fauji chain of nonprofit import enterprises to buy sensitive nuclear bits and pieces from abroad under cover.
They are also watching with considerable alarm the progress of a Spanish company, Sener, of Bilbao, which is designing a new power reactor at Mienwali in the Chashma Barrage, or mountains, south of Islamabad.
Excellent sources told the Monitor that Pakistan had just asked Sener to increase design capacity from an already large 600 megawatts to a very big 900 megawatts.
"That's far too big for Pakistan's own power requirements," one source said. "You can't help being suspicious."
An estimated $1 billion is coming from Saudi Arabia to help build the new reactor. The Chashma location is right where the French were to have built a huge reprocessing plant in the late 1970s. The plant would have extracted plutonium from uranium fuel rods irradiated at KANUPP.
The French backed out of the deal under intense US and European pressure. But its blueprints had already been delivered. They weren't returned for many months - enough time to copy them.
"So the Pakistanis want a huge electricity generator right at the same place, " said another Western source. "It makes you ask what they are planning to build next to it that will need all that electricity - another reprocessing plant? A plant to enrich uranium to weapons grade? Is the electricity to be piped to their enrichment plant further north?"
Cleverly, Pakistan chose the Bilbao company in bidding from which the US was excluded. The company is so anxious to keep its men working it has agreed that its planners in Pakistan will accept half their salary in Pakistani rupees.
A determined country can take advantage of competition and business conditions in the West to extract sensitive plans and technology.
The Technology Flow:
How has a country like Pakistan been successful in buying and abstracting nuclear parts and know-how from the West, even as the West has tried to choke off the flow?
A determined nonnuclear state can find ways and means to break through the system of embargoes and export controls erected since World War II.
This reporter was told time and time again while researching this series:
"All that limiting sensitive exports does is make a country like Pakistan pay more, take longer, and buy subcomponents instead of already assembled units. That's worth doing. But we can't stop it completely."
Take the case of the Canadian Caper.
Salam Elmenyawi is a young businessman from Egypt who moved to Montreal some years ago and took out Canadian citizenship. He set up an electronic company called Serabit, ostensibly dealing in printed circuits and alarm signals. He worked with another naturalized citizen called Muhammad Ahmad, a mechanical specialist from India, and yet another naturalized Canadian named Abdul Aziz Khan, an engineer from Pakistan.
According to court documents and contacts in Canada, the three men began importing "condensers and resistors" from the US and shipping them right out again to Pakistan. This broke Canadian law, which says imports from the US must be integrated into larger components (have "value added") before export.
The company also sent the equipment to Pakistan without an export license. The three men faced 28 charges in a Quebec criminal court in September. After two weeks of closed hearings, the case was adjourned until Jan. 18, 1982.
Eleven charges were for exporting without a license. Fourteen were for exporting goods imported from the US without value added.
Both condensers and resistors were needed to manufacture heavy inverters - machines that regulate the flow of electricity so that metal canisters used to spin uranium hexafluoride gas at high speeds turn at absolutely constant speeds.
Canadian police picked up one shipment of items worth $56,000 Canadian (US $ 47,000) at Montreal's Dorval Airport in September last year. Sources say at least 10 other shipments had left by air from Dorval before that. They estimate total value of those air shipments was close to $560,000 Canadian.
The case has only just come to trial, sources revealed because documents in the Serabit office were in Punjabi, and it took time to have them translated in a way acceptable to court.
"The police had them cold," one source added.
Mr. Elmenyawi, however, is angry at the way the Canadian Broadcasting Commmission reported his activities last December. He has launched a $175,000 (Canadian) defamation suit, claiming he was harassed and interviewed under false pretenses.
Or take the case of the West German margarine man.
The federal government in Bonn has confirmed that Freiburg company, CES Kalthof GmbH, did, indeed, export complete fluoride and fluoridation factory to Pakistan 1977, without the requisite German license.
Key man in the deal, according to Stern magazine in Hamburg (July 2, 1981) was Albrecht Mingule, owner of CES Kalthof, an expert in fluoride who told Stern: "I will fluoridate anything, from toothpaste to uranium."
In 1967, Mingule reportedly widened contacts inside Pakistan by building a margarine factory for the son of a very high official.
Later he received a license to search in Pakistan for fluorite. Still later, he contracted to build a factory in Pakistan to produce fluorine, for which fluorite is the basic source. Fluorine is required to help turn natural uranium into the gas called uranium hexafluoride. The gas is in turn fed into a centrifuge plant for enrichment.
Stern claims to have read documents connected with the contract. It quotes a company chemist as saying the fluoridation factory was built near Multan, a settlement in the southeastern Pakistan desert. Mr. Mingule told Stern everything was designed for peaceful purposes. He had known nothing about the need for export licenses.
After the article appeared, the government was asked about it during question time in the Bundestag, the West German parliament. The response was that the company had, indeed, violated export control laws.
The case is now in the courts.
Then there is the case of the British company-that-never-was.
All it consisted of was a brass plate bearing the name "Weargate" in Swansea, Wales. Operated by two Pakistanis in north London, it placed a large order for heavy electrical inverters with a highly reputable company called Emerson Electrical Controls Ltd. of Swindon, England. The Pakistanis did ship out a number of inverters in 1978.
A spokesman for Emerson confirmed that his company had begun building the inverters, but emphasized that Emerson itself did not ship them; rather the Pakistanis did.
Then an official of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., which bought inverters from Emerson for uranium enrichment, noticed the Pakistani order was for inverters identical to his.
He raised the alarm. British Labour member of Parliament Frank Allaun asked a question in the House of Commons. emerson saaid it had been told the invertes were for Pakistani textile looms, which also use them. Amid a flurry of publicity, the Energy Department slapped on export license requirements late in 1978. The Pakistanis disappeared. Weargate vanished along with them.
"We jumped on that one," said the British source. "A tricky case to handle. Emerson [was] perfectly decent about it, though they didn't like losing such a big contract, naturally."
In Turkey, sources say, "four or five" companies have been buying US-made electrical and technical supplies from Europe and shipping them straight off to Pakistan.
The US State Department sent a cable to the American Embassy in Ankara in mid-June of this year, directing embassy officials to ask Turkey to stop Turkish companies from diverting US equipment from Europe.
The cable said the US had first informed Turkey about such diversions the year before, but that its appeals had failed to stop them.
It went on to say that Turkey's economic aid from the US could be threatened if it continued to insist that it had no power to control exports of such sensitive components for Pakistan's enrichment project.
So far, Turkey has replied that it is doing what it can, but can do no more. The people flow
How does a country like Pakistan acquire such highly trained scientists to work on its nuclear program?
One answer: it sends students abroad. Those students are highly trained in the United States and in Western Europe. Then they return home.
In the case of Abdul Quader Khan, the student did much more than acquire basic skills.
According to sources familiar with his case (which was publicized at the time), Dr. Khan studied at a Dutch university. His professor recommended him in 1975 for a job at the giant URENCO centrifuge enrichment plant at Almelo, in thhe northeastern area of the Netherlands, West Germany, and Britain.
To obtain the job, he had to be a Dutch citizen, or to be applying for citizenship. He began the lengthy paperwork and settled in. "He spent about three years there," one source said. "He was quiet, unobtrusive."
For one 16-to-18-day period, he was employed in the most secret part of the plant, translating details from German. Apparently he was permitted to do so without the necessary security clearances.
Shortly afterward, he disappeared, later to turn up in Pakistan in charge of the gas centrifuge plant there.
"What he brought Pakistan was not just his first-hand knowledge of the URENCO process, one of the most advanced in the world," one source told said. "He had in hhis pocket a shopping list of the parts need to build a centrifuge, and who sold them. It was that list that formed the basis for secret Pakistani buying all over Europe in the late 1970s right up to today.
"The list alone saved Pakistan at least two years' work."
The source doubts Pakistan sent Dr. Khan to the Netherlands deliberately to infiltrate URENCO or a plant like it. He considers, instead, that Dr. Khan was on a list of Pakistani students abroad at the time Pakistan needed expertise - and that Pakistani officials made the maximum use of the knowledge he happened to gain.
In next-door India, nuclear know-how is extremely sophisticated. India rejects the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970 as unequal and unrestrictive. India detonated its own atomic device in 1974 and its nuclear program stretches back to 1944. It has the capacity to detonate a hydrogen bomb.
But intelligence analysts tell this newspaper there is no evidence that India is making small military nuclear weapons that can be delivered by airplane or submarine or long-range missile.
"We would know," said one senior official in Washington. "The Indians would have to change their military command structure in ways we and others would detect."
Experts worry most about the temptation India would be under to detonate a hydrogen bomb if Pakistan should go nuclear. Indian officials, questioned at their Atomic Energy Commission in Bombay, denied outright any intention to explode anything in answer to a possible Pakistani bomb. "We are independent," they said.
India has stressed an independent nuclear power program with small (250 megawatt) power stations. At the moment, nuclear energy generates only about 600 megawatts in the whole country. Some 870 megawatts are under construction. A start has been made on 470 more. The chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy commission, Dr. Homi Sethna, has just announced India plans to build 12 larger units of 500 megawatts each before the year 2000.
India concentrates on reprocessing plutonium form spent fuel rods, and has a plant at Tarapur able to do it. It makes its own fuel rods. Now that the United States will no longer supply low-enriched uranium fuel for the two reactors at Tarapur (the American Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978 forbids it since India won't accept complete inspection by Vienna), the huge Bombay area is threatened with power cuts unless other fuel is found. Indian solutions are discussed in the next article in this series.
Tomorrow: The semisecret flow of uranium, scientists, and technology around the world