Monday, June 12, 2006

Pakistani Nuclear Program 3-5

“PAKISTAN’S NUCLEAR HISTORY:
SEPARATING MYTH FROM REALITY”
extensive research on our nuclear initiative and puts the record straight.
[MA CHAUDHRI]

PART 3-5

BUILDING THE PLUTONIUM BOMB

Highly Enriched Uranium is one route to nuclear weapons. The other route and more popular route is that of “plutonium”, which is used by all other nations to make nuclear weapons, such as India, Israel, China, Russia, United States, France and the United Kingdom, because plutonium bombs are smaller in size, but greater in explosive power or yield as compared to uranium bombs. Moreover they are more easily delivered and can be easily adapted as tactical nuclear weapons or for battlefield use, and being smaller in size and greater in yield, they can be easily fitted on to aircraft, missiles, or artillery shells.

Together with Dr. Abdus Salam, Munir Ahmad Khan had the privilege of preparing a proposal for the establishment of nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Pakistan in late 1960's. Ayub Khan deferred the matter on economic grounds. Thus Pakistan lost a golden opportunity for acquiring this important technology when it was readily available to Pakistan without safeguards and at a nominal cost more than thirty years ago.[xliv]

There is a popular myth and allegation leveled against PAEC and Munir Khan that they failed at the plutonium route. Yet, contrary to popular perception, Pakistan did not forego the plutonium route to the bomb, and pursued it along with the uranium route, which is a testimony to Munir Khan's vision, as this route was the "next step" towards a thermonuclear capability.

The centerpiece of the PAEC weapon’s programme in the early 1970s was the effort to acquire a reprocessing plant to separate plutonium from the fuel of KANUPP and future nuclear power plants envisioned by the PAEC. The technology for KANUPP was the same natural uranium/heavy water technology used in the Indian Cirus and later Dhruva reactors used by India for producing weapons plutonium, therefore pursuing the plutonium route was the "logical" option given Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure at that time. KANUPP was a Heavy Water natural uranium reactor which could be refueled continuously, without any need to shut down the reactor, which would make it more difficult for outside observers to know how much fuel was used, thus enabling spent fuel to be diverted to military applications for reprocessing, if the need arose. KANUPP was under the IAEA safeguards, but Munir Ahmad Khan was not unduly concerned, as he himself had spent 14 years at the IAEA.

For the first few years of its operation KANUPP used Canadian fuel, which had come under IAEA safeguards before it left Canada. The IAEA therefore knew at that time precisely how much uranium was being shipped from Canada to be loaded into KANUPP. However, after Canada broke off supply of nuclear fuel in 1976, PAEC was able to provide its own fuel and, unless additional safeguards measures were applied, the IAEA would not be able independently to verify — to know with a reasonable degree of assurance — how much fuel was being loaded into and irradiated in KANUPP. Pakistan objected, however, to the additional safeguards measures proposed by the IAEA on the grounds that they were not foreseen in the safeguards agreement covering the KANUPP reactor. In his statement to the Board concerning Pakistan’s unwillingness to accept additional safeguards, the Director General of IAEA stressed that he was not reporting a breach of a safeguards agreement. Nonetheless, his report caused a stir and brought pressure on Islamabad, and on India where a similar problem had arisen. In due course both governments reached agreements with the IAEA Secretariat on additional safeguards and in June 1982, nine months after the Director General had first raised the matter in the Board, he was able to inform the Board that: “In these two cases there has been significant progress since the end of 1982 and the technical safeguards measures implemented at the plants in question now enable the Agency once more to perform effective verification.” [xlv] But by 1981, the PAEC had been successful in completing the "pilot" reprocessing plant at New Labs in PINSTECH and shortly after 1982 when the additional safeguards were put in place, the PAEC began work on the Khushab Heavy water plutonium and tritium production reactor in 1985.

The basic idea behind the reprocessing contract with France was to acquire technology from where ever it was available, and then to replicate and build indigenous power plants and nuclear facilities, as was done by PAEC in the case of "New Labs" and "Khushab".

"New Labs and Khushab- From Nuclear to Thermonuclear"

It is pertinent to mention here that in the late 1960s, Pakistan had contracted with both British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) and Belgonucléaire to prepare studies and designs for pilot plutonium separation facilities. The BNFL design was supposed to be capable of separating up 360 g of fuel a year. The plans for this plant were completed by 1971. The first step after Multan was to build a pilot reprocessing facility called the "New Labs" at PINSTECH. This facility was a larger and more ambitious project than the original BNFL plan. [xlvi]

It was to be built in the early 70s by Belgonucléaire and the French corporation SGN, but following the French cancellation of the reprocessing contract, the PAEC went on to complete the pilot reprocessing plant by 1981 on its own, known as the "New Labs" in PINSTECH.

The pilot reprocessing plant contract was followed by a contract signed with SGN of France in March 1973 to prepare the basic design for a large scale reprocessing plant, one with a capacity of 100 tons of fuel per year, considerably more than KANUPP would generate. The Chashma plant, as it was known, would have the capability to reprocess 100 tons of used reactor fuel and produce about 800 kg of weapons grade plutonium a year, if sufficient fuel were available to feed it. It would have provided Pakistan with the ability to “break safeguards” and quickly process accumulated fuel from KANUPP and other future nuclear power plants, when it decided to openly declare itself a nuclear-armed state. The final detailed design and construction contract was signed on 18 October 1974, which followed the initial design contract. The original contract for this project did not include significant safeguards to discourage diversion of the separated plutonium, or controls on the technology.[xlvii]

In March 1973 a team of three PAEC nuclear scientists and engineers comprising of Khalil Qureshi, Zafarullah and Abdul Majid were sent to the headquarters of Belgonucleaire at Mol to participate in the designing of a pilot nuclear fuel reprocessing facility as well as gain training in reprocessing spent fuel. Chairman of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) Munir Ahmed Khan favored the Belgian pilot reprocessing plant over the British facility on grounds that it would be difficult for Pakistan to upgrade the downgraded reprocessing plant on offer from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA).[xlviii]

The French government, under American influence began to show increased concern about the Chashma plant during 1976. A safeguards agreement for France brought the plant before the IAEA in February 1976, which was approved on 18 March and signed by Pakistan. This at least ensured that the plant would have monitoring so that diversion to military purposes could not be made. Despite Bhutto’s overthrow in 1977 by General Zia, the latter continued the project unabated, and continued to press the French to fulfill the Chashma contract. But France had begun gradually turning against the reprocessing plant. Despite the French backstabbing of the reprocessing contract, PAEC went on to develop its own plutonium reactor at Khushab in the mid-1980s, and it was a totally indigenous project. Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood designed the Khushab Reactor, and in technical terms, the PAEC plutonium programme is more significant than the enrichment project for Pakistan in the long run, as this project gave Pakistan the capability to produce indigenous plutonium and tritium which is used in developing advanced fission devices and is the basis of a thermonuclear capability. The Khushab reactor also produces tritium, which the PAEC had attempted to produce by irradiating lithium. By 1987, the PAEC was able to acquire from West Germany parts for a tritium purification facility. Later, Pakistan attempted to procure from Germany 30 tons of aluminum tubing, used to "clad lithium for irradiation in a reactor."[xlix]

This was also part of the PAEC effort to acquire complete mastery over the ‘nuclear fuel cycle’. The PAEC also went on to complete its indigenous 'pilot' reprocessing plant by 1981, called the "New Labs" at PINSTECH, which gave Pakistan the capability to reprocess enough plutonium for at least one nuclear weapon a year. "New Labs" is an experimental, pilot-scale plutonium reprocessing plant that has the capability to reprocess 10-20 kg of plutonium each year, work on which had begun in 1976. "Cold" tests were conducted at New Labs as early as 1982, and in 1987 West German sources claimed that the facility previously conducted "hot" tests.[l]

A very important point needs to be kept in mind regarding the timing of the initiation of the Kahuta Enrichment Project, A.Q. Khan’s arrival in Pakistan, and the cancellation of the French Plutonium Reprocessing Contract. The fact is that the Kahuta Enrichment Project was started in 1974. The Reprocessing contract was signed as two separate agreements, one in March 1973, for a “basic design”, the other for “detailed design” and actual construction in October 1974. It was begun along with the KRL project by PAEC, and was cancelled only in August 1978, where as A. Q. Khan arrived in Pakistan to work under Bashiruddin Mahmud at KRL/ERL in 1976, which is two years before the French cancelled the reprocessing contract. This clearly exposes the inaccuracy of the impression that his arrival in Pakistan was because the PAEC had failed in the plutonium route to the bomb, in the wake of the French cancellation of the reprocessing plant contract with PAEC. The PAEC had obtained almost all the detailed designs and drawings for the Chashma Reprocessing plant from the French firm SGN, before the contract was cancelled, and it went on to develop its own plant indigenously, at Khushab.[li] Khushab was finally commissioned in 1998.

A critical element in the manufacture of boosted fission devices and thermonuclear or Hydrogen bombs is tritium. In 1985, Germany licensed for export to PAEC a tritium plant by the firm NTG Nukleartechnik GmbH (NTG), preferring to call it a ’heavy water purifier’ instead of -- as the U.S. preferred -- a ’tritium recovery facility’ in the interests of complying with German regulations on sensitive nuclear exports. While heavy water purification technology was not subject to export controls in Germany at that time, technology for the recovery of tritium was controlled. The PAEC was also able to procure from NTG in 1987, a tritium gas storage and purification plant.

In order to obtain significant amounts of weapons grade tritium gas, the PAEC needed to irradiate lithium-6 targets, perhaps in an unsafeguarded research reactor. The plant provided by NTG was capable of purifying this tritium gas to 98%. In amounts of about 4 to 5 grams, tritium, the heaviest hydrogen isotope, is used as a booster in a fission nuclear weapon.

The plant , however, can purify the gas product obtained from irradiated lithium-6 targets, since separation of hydrogen isotopes would not be required. Bombarding lithium-6 with neutrons produces an end product of tritium, large amounts of helium-3 and helium-4. By 1986-87 the PAEC had also procured ’tritiated targets' which could be used at the Pinstech plant in Rawalpindi' to extract pure tritium.

Production of tritium via lithium requires bombarding the lithium-6 isotope with neutrons in a reactor. It was not likely that PAEC would use the Kanupp heavy water reactor, which is under IAEA safeguards, for this purpose.

An official at the IAEA at that time said that while heavy water at Kanupp was safeguarded along with reactor fuel, the control rods were not explicitly checked. ’From a safeguards point of view irradiation of lithium at Kanupp would be a theroretical possibility,'

Circumstantial evidence at that point in time indicated instead to the possibility that Pakistan could irradiate lithium-6 at an unsafeguarded, unknown research reactor. Because of the low melting point of the aluminum used in target cladding, irradiation in a Candu reactor core--where temperatures above 500 degrees F obtain--would also be undesirable.

The PAEC had in fact begun work by 1985 on building a 50-MWt research reactor at Khushab which is the source for tritium and which could produce plutonium with a few high-enriched uranium ’driver' rods in the core, but which could also be used to irradiate lithium targets. The U.S. magazine "Nuclear Fuel" reported that the PAEC was ’very proud' of its present capabilities in enrichment, reactor technology, and fuel fabrication, and that the PAEC believed that it had the means to build the Khushab plant itself.[lii] NTG also exported to PAEC a high-temperature vacuum oven in 1987. However, the artificially produced superheavy hydrogen or tritium decomposes quickly into helium. Therefore, it must be constantly renewed.That is precisely what the NTG plant can do: Every day, five grams of tritium can be recovered, which is incredibly large. A few grams of this gas are sufficient to increase the power of an explosive ’substantially,' nuclear weapons scientist Gerhard Locke, 56, of the Euskirchen Fraunhofer Institute in former West Germany was quoted as saying in Der Speigel, in 1989. Therefore, ’the second bomb generation of the lighter type' cannot do ’without tritium,' he said.


PINSTECH and Centre for Nuclear Studies - The backbone of the programme

The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission’s Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) is the premier nuclear research and development establishment which dates back to the days of Dr. I.H.Usmani and proved to be the backbone of most of the PAEC’s projects and the entire nuclear programme.

PINSTECH played an unassuming and a subtle role in the success of the nuclear programme of Pakistan. All the leaders of civil and classified nuclear programmes were provided by PINSTECH from time to time during the execution of the projects. PINSTECH is a store house of R & D capabilities and has been a source of great academic strength of Pakistan in a similar manner as that provided by good universities in Europe.[liii]

Most people who have been writing on Pakistan's nuclear programme have failed to understand and ignored the primordial role of the research reactor at PINSTECH campus in Nilore, under PAEC chairman Munir Ahmed Khan, which directly helped KRL. This reactor proved to be world-class university and was extensively used for research in nuclear physics, materials science and metallurgy. This is where first generation of Pakistani scientists studied corrosion of metals, radio active fuel, and design / safety of reactors, the very same people who built KRL. This is where the scientists designed and conducted elaborate experiments to learn how different materials react in harsh environment of a power reactor. And this is where PAEC learned and grasped many of the finer points of reactor, material engineering (knowledge utilized later in centrifuge design) and nuclear physics long before A.Q. Khan took charge of KRL.

The same ignorant nuclear writers who have been writing extensively on the nuclear programme have also failed to comprehend the fact that Pakistan with its research and power reactor at PINSTECH became capable of developing nuclear weapons in two different ways without the help of AQ Khan. Before 1974, if Pakistan wanted, uranium used for reactor fuel could be set aside for further enrichment to weapon grade using variety of methods that had been completely and practically understood and mastered at PINSTECH as early as 1974. They are unable to realize that PAEC was capable to produce unstable plutonium (PU-239) from nuclear reactor and don't want to acknowledge that PAEC had crossed the threshold in several underlying technologies in early seventies, when Munir Ahmed Khan was PAEC chairman.

India used a reactor supplied by Canada to produce plutonium (from stolen fuel rods) for its nuclear weapons tested in 1974 and 1998. Israel did the same from its Dimona plant. Lately North Korea has attempted to produce a plutonium device from the unseparated Plutonium in fuel rods stolen at its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and Iran with active Russian help would probably do the same.

By 1979 PAEC and PINSTECH (under Munir ) had expanded and technically advanced to the point where these organizations were capable of doing what A.Q. Khan claims to have done all on his own.

The extensive programme of the nuclear fuel cycle is the back bone of the nuclear technology in Pakistan and the basic R & D, leading to pilot plants and later adopted on factory scale, was done at the two research centres, the Atomic Energy Mineral Centre in Lahore and the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) in Islamabad which has also acted as a supplier of high quality human resource to almost all the main civil and nuclear defense projects in Pakistan.

Some of the most important departments of PINSTECH proved critical to all areas of nuclear programme. Nuclear Materials Division (NMD) of PINSTECH, was established in 1973, by Munir Ahmed Khan. At present, this Division is one of the most prestigious technical Divisions of PINSTECH which has contributed significantly to the development of PAEC's indiginization programme. It has the distinction of accomplishing several projects of strategic importance and has played a key role in the efficient running of these projects by solving scientific and engineering problems. [liv]

PINSTECH has contributed significantly to the development of PAEC’s indigenization programme by providing technical and finance for the development, production and characterization of materials related to nuclear industry and the nuclear programme. Several metallurgical and chemical processing projects have been undertaken in this field. R & D activities have been pursued on projects of strategic importance, including development of reactor fuel and structural materials, alloys, advanced ceramics, heat treatment, mechanical and corrosion testing, materials characterization, etc.[lv]

PINSTECH has played a pioneering role in the development of technical know-how for the production and processing of nuclear materials and fuel for Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP).

The Nuclear Engineering Division (NED) is one of the most prestigious Division of Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH). The Division was established with the objective to develop technical expertise mainly in the area of Nuclear Reactor Technology. NED has been constantly providing highly trained manpower for several projects of strategic importance. [lvi]

PINSTECH houses two small reactors, the Pakistan Atomic Research Reactor (PARR-1), being a 10 MW high-flux, pool-type research reactor supplied by the U.S in 1965, which was upgraded from 5 MW in 1989 and uses 20 % enriched uranium as fuel and PARR-2 is a 27 KWt pool-type light-water research reactor that was supplied by China in 1989. Both these research reactors like KANUPP are under the IAEA safeguards.

The Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences, (PIEAS) is one of the country’s leading research and educational institutions. The seeds of this institution were sown in 1967, when a small training facility, called "Reactor School", was established at PINSTECH by Dr. I.H.Usmani to conduct some courses related to nuclear technology for the newly inducted engineers and scientists of the PAEC. Later, the Reactor School was upgraded and the Centre for Nuclear Studies (CNS) was established by Munir Ahmad Khan in 1976, which catered to the technical manpower needs of all areas of the nuclear programme at a time when the world had closed its doors to Pakistani students. The CNS has so far produced over 5000 nuclear scientists, engineers and technicians who were the backbone and the human resource for the nuclear programme.[lvii]

The Departments of Nuclear Engineering, Chemical and Materials Engineering, Process Engineering, Systems Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Nuclear Medicine and Physics and Applied Mathematics and Information Technology, in the Centre for Nuclear Studies, now known as PIEAS or Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has been conducting one of the most advanced masters and post-graduate training programmes along with Ph.D programmes in these disciplines for over 34 years now.

Munir Ahmed Khan also established the Radiation & Isotope Applications Division (RIAD) in 1972 along with the Nuclear Materials Division in 1973 at PINSTECH. These, along with the Nuclear Chemistry and Nuclear Engineering Divisions of PINSTECH, which were established under I.H.Usmani, played a critical role in the nuclear programme all along. A full-fledged Computer Division was also established at PINSTECH by 1980.

The PAEC/PINSTECH facilities, expertise and training played the pivotal role in uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel cycle development and provided the much needed R&D and manpower for all strategic areas of the nuclear programme. [lviii]

The Pakistan Institute of Science & Technology (PINSTECH) is also responsible for fuel cycle R&D activities, including analytical chemistry, nuclear materials, metallurgy, fuel development, digital electronics, control instrumentation, and computational physics; basic research facilities are open to scientists/engineers from universities as well as research organizations.

The Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology uranium laboratories were focused in the mid-1970s on chemical processes and quality control procedures to fabricate uranium oxide pellets to be used to fuel the KANUPP reactor. Yellow cake has to be purified to reactor grade quality to remove trace impurities. A full scale refining plant was built for this purpose. And the refined uranium was fabricated into pure uranium oxide and pressed into small pellets which were sealed in zircaloy cladding tubes. PINSTECH developed techniques for producing high purity uranium from yellow cake, and converting it into oxide and pellets. PINSTECH facilities produced the uranium oxide, and developed the special welding techniques and other procedures required for large scale production operations.

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