Kahuta Incident Brings Back Focus On Pakistan Nuclear Safety – Analysis


By Rajeev Sharma

Officially, shutters are down on Pakistani disgraced nuclear scientist AQ Khan’s nuclear Wal-Mart. But the dangers of Pakistan’s nuclear technology going awry still remain. Three immediate causes of concern stand out.

One, Pakistan is speeding up work on its fourth nuclear reactor at Khushab which would enable Islamabad to build large number of smaller nuclear warheads, according to Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). Pakistan already has 90-110 N-warheads and its nuclear weapons programme is among the fastest growing in the world.


Two, underpowered and unsafe, Pakistan’s nuclear reactors are just big boys’ toys. Pakistan’s reactors provide only a tiny amount of energy the country needs and are located in risky geographical locations – Karachi in the Arabian Sea where the risk is from tsunami, Chashma in the Indus River which is prone to flash floods, and Khushab in Pakistan-held Kashmir and Northern parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the main danger comes from earthquakes.

Third, Pakistan has built the core of its nuclear competence and nuclear bomb through deceit – by smuggling basic designs and illegally acquiring key components like tritium precursor materials (from two German firms), and illegally buying US goods with dual-use applications. Pakistan received substantial help in its nuclear quest from China, which made Xun Wang, a lawful permanent Chinese resident of the United States to illegally export high-performance epoxy paint coatings for the Chashma nuclear power reactor.

Dr Khan, who has been shielded from international interrogation after his Nuclear Wal-Mart was exposed during the Musharraf era, pooh-poohed CIA estimates of Pakistan programme. Any intelligence estimates of the US were 10 years behind where Pakistan’s nuclear programme actually stood, he told the interviewer, and added: “When CIA sent a letter saying we had crossed the five per cent threshold, we had made several bombs by then.”

And thus Pakistan has become a role model for other entities determined to eat grass and live in caves but acquire nuclear capability as so famously remarked by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

The recent incident in Kahuta has once again brought to the fore the danger that Pakistan’s nuclear programme poses to the world. The incident happened on May 12, 2012. “Lightning strikes security installation in Kahuta”, read a front page news item in the widely read and respected Pakistan English daily Dawn on May 14. It was a brief, indeed sketchy, report by the daily’s correspondent, Mohammad Asghar, who was apparently tipped off by ‘a security source’.

“A substantial part of a section of a sensitive government installation in Kahuta was heavily damaged when its building was struck by lightning on Saturday night, Dawn learnt on Sunday through a security source”, Asghar reported.

Kahuta is the hub of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, including a Uranium enrichment plant and a short range missile fabrication facility.

Surprisingly, just one more daily, Jasarat (Urdu publication) reported the Kahuta damage due to lightning, and consequent blaze. But its report appeared on May 15, a day after Dawn published its story.

No official word is available on the incident till date. ‘A multi-programme research institute of the government, managed and operated under close scrutiny of the armed forces, was damaged,’ Dawn correspondent reported.

His source had put the extent of damage at 65 percent, which is substantial and is, therefore, cause for concern. Fire fighters of the department took two hours to control the fire. However, there was no casualty, according to the daily, which was founded by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, at whose behest the British had carved out Pakistan as the land for the pure before leaving the sub-continent in August 1947.

A thunder storm or a dust storm is not unusual in Rawalpindi – Islamabad during May when the temperatures soar. But weather gods are unusually kind this summer for the families of political-bureaucratic establishment and the military- nuclear establishment in these twin cities and the neighbourhood. Mostly cloudy sky has been greeting them every morning with temperatures hovering around 35 degrees C as if to compliment the efforts of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Reza Gilani to spare the ‘power centre’ of the country from the long power cuts that have become a norm across Pakistan for over two years.

The forecast on May 12 carried on Dawn’s city page did not hold any disappointment. It read: “Overcast sky. Temp High 33 degrees C. Winds North at 15 to 20 km. The night sky would be clear”. The outlook for the next three days, said the forecast, would be more or less same for all major cities except Lahore which could witness thunder storms on May 13. Chances of a thunderstorm were predicted for Islamabad as well though for the night of May 11.

Both news columns of Dawn and Mohammad Asghar’s dispatch are silent on weather conditions across the national capital district. Interestingly, Asghar quotes ‘the source’ even for the timing of the thunder storm, which ‘stuck at around 10.30pm’.

A careful reading of the ‘dispatch’ shows not only professionalism of the reporter but also extreme caution he had exercised. Every single detail from thunder storm to the blaze and fire fighters was attributed to the source, which was also quoted as saying that ‘a report of the incident has been sent to relevant authorities’. Obviously the “relevant authorities” did not include the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

There is only one known instance of Pakistan reporting to IAEA an accident at its reactor. On October 19, 2011, heavy water leaked at Unit-one of the aging Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP). It happened when the plant was shut down for maintenance. An estimated 1200 kg of heavy water leaked prompting the authorities to declare a ‘standby emergency’ first and later upgrade it to ‘plant emergency’ till the leakage was ‘controlled using temporary means and reduced to drop wise state’.

As Rina Saeed Khan wrote in The Guardian (April 28, 2011), Pakistan’s atomic energy programme is shrouded in secrecy. There is little public debate about safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets and its nuclear safety record.

Sharon Squassoni, a senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, D.C) voiced the same view two years earlier in April 2008 while appearing on BBC World Service News Hour. She was interviewed in the wake of an explosion at the Khushab nuclear facility (located 200 kilometers south of Islamabad), which produces plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons program. ‘Issues of nuclear safety are opaque in Pakistan’, said Sharon who was working then with Carnegie Foundation.

The explosion claimed the lives of two nuclear workers. “Pakistan has taken some steps since 2001 to increase transparency in its civilian nuclear program and it is a signatory to the Convention on Nuclear Safety,” Sharon Squassoni said. “But none of those apply to its military program, so in many respects we are in the dark.”

Like the Kahuta nuclear facility, Khushab’s Heavy Water and Natural Uranium Research Reactor, a critical part of the Pakistan’s Special Weapons Program is not subject to IAEA inspections. And like in the case of May 12 lightning strike at Kahuta, during the Khushab explosion police near the plant were virtually in the dark. They were advised by plant officials to prepare buses for a wider evacuation, but then were told they would not be needed.

It is no secret that Pakistan’s military establishment keeps the country’s nuclear activities under close surveillance and precious little comes out in the public domain.

The following excerpt from AP dispatch on the incident as reported in the USA Today shows how army managed nuclear establishment keeps everything under wraps in Pakistan.

“Hamid Mukhtar Gondal, police chief for the district where Khushab is located, said he was told that an accidental blast was caused by cylinders of an unspecified gas. After the blast, the building caught fire, Gondal told The Associated Press. Two men sustained burns and died on the way to a hospital. ‘At the moment, with the help of God, everything is under control,’ he said.

Ghulam Muhammad, the mayor of the neighboring town of Khushab, said there was initial panic as the plant and the residential colony for workers were evacuated and roadblocks thrown up to cordon off the area. Within three hours, plant management gave an all clear and removed the roadblocks, he said, adding he was unhappy that local officials were not immediately told of the incident.

‘We only got informed of the gas leak by the employees rushing out of the colony,” he said. “For public safety, they need to inform the local administration’.”

Four years after the nightmare experience, it is still unclear whether the explosion at Khushab was an accident. A website had claimed that it was not an accident, but an attack by US forces stationed in Afghanistan (http://pkpolitics.com/2008/04/10/khushab-nuclear-plant-explosion-killed-two/) and this report was widely covered but met with no official comment from Islamabad.

On January 9, 2009, David E Sanger reported in The New York Times that Obama’s Worst Pakistan Nightmare remained the danger of Pakistani N-weapon falling into the hands of Islamist militants. According to him, Strategic Plans Division, based at the Chaklala Garrison is entrusted with the task of protecting Pakistan’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.

It is not an easy job at best of times and more so now when ‘Islamic militants, Qaeda scientists, Indian saboteurs and those American commando teams that Pakistanis imagine, with good reason, are waiting just over the horizon in Afghanistan, ready to seize their nuclear treasure if a national meltdown seems imminent”.

Series of incidents that have taken place in and around Kahuta and beyond in Peshawar and Kabul appear to puncture ‘lightning stuck Kahuta complex’ story and bring up a scary picture.

  • Two terrorists have been arrested from the area adjacent to Kahuta Research Laboratory, Urdu daily, Jasarat, reported on May 18. “The Kahuta Station House Officer (head of police station), Raja Saleem has informed the media that one is them is from Azad (Pakistan held) Kashmir and that the other is from Bajaur tribal agency. Their names are Shabbir Zaman and Nadeem”. Jasarat was silent on when the arrests were made. It is not material but the fact that two terrorists were picked up from Kahuta is. It confirms the fears about worst Pakistan nightmare.
  • On May 13, a top Afghan peace negotiator, Arsala Rahmani, was shot dead in Kabul. A former minister in the Taliban regime, he was a “key negotiator” in the council established by Karzai to hold peace talks with Taliban, and he had recently established contacts with senior Taliban leaders. He is the second victim of peace process after former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed last September by a purported Taliban suicide bomber posing as a peace envoy.
  • Again on Sunday May 13, Samar Gul, a key leader of the peace committee in the Bayzai sub-division of Mohmand Agency was killed in an attack on Khro Shah Kandao post, located at a hilltop near the main Atta Bazaar of Khawaizai.
  • Also on Sunday, May 13, Maulana Syed Mohammad Mohsin Shah, a district leader of a peace jirga lashkar in Lakki Marwat district shot dead by unidentified assailants at dawn inside his seminary at Jamia Haleemia, Dara Pezo. According to the Lakki Marwat District Police Officer (DPO) Umer Riaz, Shah received several death threats from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) soon after taking the responsibility as a head of the peace committee.

Pakistan media, particularly the popular vernacular dailies have been reporting about remote controlled bomb blasts across the country. These reports clearly indicate a step up ‘in the strike rate’.

Nawa-i-Waqt, a Urdu daily, known for its proximity to the Lahore -based-Jihadi establishment, reported (May 14) that terrorist attacks had started with the possibility of reopening of NATO supply lines. “The attack on police force at Babu Sabu Interchange could be the beginning of major attacks”, it said.

Brigadier Ali Khan, whose links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir were exposed after militants’ assault on Mehran naval air base in May 2011, has demanded that the Army scrap its alliance with ISAF. ‘This tie-up is forcing Pakistan army to fight against its own people to make Afghanistan safe for Americans. Pakistan will regain its pride if it gets out of the US-led alliance’, he declared in a six-page written statement from his prison cell, according to Jasarat daily.

Linked to NATO Supplies

Already a nationwide campaign is under way against allowing NATO supplies through Pakistani soil. It is spearheaded by Difa-e-Pakistan Council, which comprises religious groups and parties, Islamists, and terrorist outfits. Maulana Sami ul Haq, Prof. Hafiz Saeed, Syed Munawar Hassan, Gen. (Retd) Hamid Gul, Aijazul Haq, Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, and Hafiz Abdur Rahman Makki are among the leading lights of the alliance, which, according to reports in The Nation and The Express Tribune, enjoys the patronage of Pak army and the ISI. All of them are openly supporting Taliban because Taliban has ‘launched a jihad’ against the US forces in Afghanistan.

In a statement on May 13, the DPC leaders said: “The entire nation is against allowing NATO supplies through Pakistan. The government could confirm this through a referendum”. They issued a call to the owners of containers and good transporters, drivers, helpers and labourers ‘to stop conveyance’ of NATO goods from Karachi port to Afghan border.

In the run-up to the NATO summit at Chicago, local media speculated about a patch up between Islamabad and Washington over the supply issue. And these reports appear to have led to a step-up in dastardly attacks on the police stations, army soldiers and pro-government religious scholars like Karachi based Maulana Aslam Shaikhupuri.

These developments inside Pakistan have coincided with a new operation mounted by the Taliban inside Afghanistan.

“Taliban have started fresh operations in Afghanistan code named ‘Al Farooq’. The campaign has already resulted in deadly strikes in Nangarhar, Kabul, Farah and Kandahar. Taliban have killed 78 Allied Forces in the current operation”, says a report in Al Qalam Weekly, (11-17 May).

Taliban, when it was in the driver’s seat in Kabul before 9/11 did not accept the Durand Line that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan. And it sees no reason to respect the Line now when they have a free run of the highway from the border to Peshawar and beyond towards Islamabad, and enjoy open patronage of people who matter on the Pakistan side.

May is an important month for Pakistan. For the Jihadi enterprise in Pakistan, May is a month of mourning. It was on May 2 of 2011 that ‘Satan’ America had sent its special forces to kill Osama bin Laden, who was sheltered in the Abbottabad cantonment. The attack reminded the jihadi of the Entebbe raid carried out by Israel years ago in a cross- continent rescue mission.

It was on May 28 of 1998 that Pakistan first publicly announced successful nuclear tests, in what Pakistan claimed was its response to the multiple nuclear tests India had carried out earlier that month on the 13th at Pokhran, situated just 150 km (93 miles) from the border with Pakistan. In the years since the test, several foreign -trained scientists were returning to home to join Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure. And some of them, like Brigadier Ali Khan, are known to espouse the cause of ushering in new Islamic world order, proving thereby that radical Islam is not the exclusive domain of Maulanas and Mullahs alone.

Talking on a private TV channel (Express News programme Front Line with Kamran Shahid) on ‘the test anniversary’, AQ Khan said that Pakistan became capable of a nuclear explosion in 1984 itself. “In a letter dated December 10, 1984, I had written to then Pakistan president, General Zia ul Haq, I told him that we were ready to conduct a nuclear explosion at a week’s notice”. However, it was not till Benazir Bhutto became the Prime Minister Pakistan did not embark on a delivery system (missile) programme. And finally the ‘tit-for tat’ tests were conducted when Nawaz Sharif was the Prime Minister.

(The author is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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