Pakistan is estimated to have the world’s fastest growing nuclear programme in the world. Satellite imagery has indicated that a new uranium-enriched complex is coming up in Kahuta, a town that is barely 30 km from Islamabad.
Nuclear scientist R. Rajaraman, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes it is “too early to arrive at a conclusion as to what this complex will house. Are they indeed giving a push for enriched uranium or are they concentrating on expanding their plutonium programme? These details are not clear as of now”.
Rajaraman, co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials and a member of the world scientists permanent panel on Mitigation of Terrorists Acts, is in agreement that Pakistan is producing more weapon-usable fissile material each passing year, but he cautions that the rate of growth of nuclear warheads is often exaggerated by Western analysts.
Rajaraman insists that no one outside the respective governments really knows how many weapons have been assembled. But scientists of the International Panel on Fissile Materials who track fissile material production of all countries on an annual basis believe that the Pakistanis have set up 3 plutonium (Pu) producing reactors at Khushab and a fourth is in the making. But these are heavy water reactors with a 50-MW (Megawatt thermal) capacity.
“Such reactors typically produce, at 65 per cent efficiency, about 7 kg of Pu each per year. At best, the three reactors can together produce only 105 kg in five years, which can fuel about 21 warheads. Once the Pu is produced in the reactors, it is not immediately available for making bombs. The fuel rods have to be cooled for a couple of years and then reprocessed to have the weapon-usable Pu extracted. So the actual production of assembled weapons will be much less,” said Rajaraman.
Pakistan’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons is said to be around 110 weapons. Rajaraman pointed out, “Even if this figure is correct, and we add 21 more in the next five years, Pakistan cannot reach 200 warheads by 2020, as is projected by some think tanks.”
Pakistan earlier produced highly enriched uranium which was produced by AQ Khan’s centrifuges. Pakistani scientists Prof Zia Mian, Prof M H Nayyar and Prof Rajaraman have shown in an audit they collectively did on Pakistani uranium availability, that their domestic supply of raw uranium was limited and could barely feed their four Khushabh reactors.
This could be one of the reasons why they are pushing for plutonium. Scientists, therefore, believe that Pakistan’s arsenal will touch 130 warheads or less by 2020.
Rajaraman maintains that India’s rate of warhead production is not 10 warheads a year as is being projected by some western analysts since its only functioning Pu production reactor is the Dhruva at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre which annually produces about 18 kg of Pu which can fuel about three to four bombs per year, not 10 as is stated.
On the key question of whether Pakistan would resort to nuclear force in case India crossed its borders to hunt down terrorists, Rajaraman pointed out that while Pakistan has always maintained that its nuclear force was intended to deter a conventional attack by India, “it has also been using its nuclear umbrella for a more insidious purpose — as a cover even for the terrorist attacks it sponsors in India such as the infamous Mumbai attack. The idea is that if ever India loses its patience after such repeated terror attacks and decides to retaliate against the terrorist camps, hideouts or headquarters, Pakistan may term that a conventional military attack and invoke the nuclear option. This is a way to continue with terrorism without retaliation”.
On the apprehension that nuclear weapons can fall into the hands of terrorists, Rajaraman has always maintained that there is little likelihood of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terror groups like the Taliban. They may have launched some attacks at the gates of some military bases but this is a far cry from penetrating the rings of security that Pakistan must undoubtedly have to guard its weapons he said.
Rajaraman is candid enough to admit that the development of battlefield Nasr missile has been the most dangerous development in South Asia, especially since it is not clear what the command and control status of such battlefield nuclear missiles will be.
“Those have to be used in battle in response to battlefield developments to be effective. In such situations, it may be impractical for the ground commanders to seek and await a go-signal from the apex political leadership,” he said.
This is bound to lead to an even more complicated and bloody situation on the ground because if the option to use it on the ground is handed over to a ground commander, it will see a further escalation of tension between two nuclear-armed nations.