Ending Pakistan's Nuclear Addiction

Daryl G. Kimball

The people of Pakistan face multiple hardships: catastrophic flooding, a Taliban-affiliated insurgency, political assassinations, and chronic poverty. Yet, the country’s powerful military establishment has directed much of the nation’s wealth and perhaps even international nuclear technical assistance to building a nuclear arsenal that does nothing to address these urgent threats.

Pakistan already has enough nuclear material to build at least 100 bombs—more than enough nuclear firepower to deter an attack from its neighbor and rival, India, which itself possesses enough separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) for about 140 bombs.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s leaders insist they must produce even more fissile material—HEU and plutonium—to keep pace with India. Fresh reports indicate Pakistan now is building a fourth unsafeguarded production reactor at Khushab.

The continued and uncontrolled expansion of these nuclear arsenals raises the risk that a border skirmish between Islamabad and New Delhi could go nuclear. Also, Pakistan’s weapons and nuclear material stockpiles are a prime target for terrorists. Its nuclear technology could once again be sold on the black market by insiders, just as A.Q. Khan did for years.

The U.S. relationship with Pakistan is now focused on turning back the Taliban and al Qaeda, but the United States no longer can afford to postpone serious efforts to break Pakistan’s nuclear addiction and encourage Pakistan, India, and China to exercise greater nuclear restraint.

To do so, stopping the production of fissile material for weapons and pursuing the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) once again must be top U.S. priorities. In 1998 the United States supported a UN Security Council resolution condemning India’s and Pakistan’s tit-for-tat nuclear explosions and calling on the two countries to sign the CTBT and halt fissile production for weapons.

At the time, the two states might have agreed to a production cutoff and signed the CTBT. But other commercial and strategic priorities, including the 2008 civil nuclear trade exemption for India and the U.S.-led offensive against the Taliban, have pushed nonproliferation opportunities to the margins.

In 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to “lead a global effort” to negotiate a verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) at the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD). Given that France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all declared a halt to fissile material production for weapons, and China is believed to have halted production, a global fissile production halt would have its greatest impact on India, Pakistan, and possibly China.

Unfortunately, Pakistan continues to block the start of the negotiation, citing India’s greater fissile production potential from the plutonium in the spent fuel of its unsafeguarded power reactors, which could provide enough material for several hundred more bombs.

On Feb. 28, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made another strong pitch at the CD directed at Pakistan to allow work finally to begin on the FMCT. Until it does, U.S. and other diplomats are urging informal technical talks. Such efforts are laudable but insufficient. India and the major nuclear suppliers—France, Russia, and the United States—must do more to help break the cycle. India can and should declare that it will not increase its rate of fissile production and will put additional nonmilitary reactors under safeguards. Such a move could increase Indian security by pressuring Pakistan and China to make similar pledges.

Even if FMCT talks begin soon, it will be many years before a treaty is completed and it enters into force. By that time, India and Pakistan will have accumulated still more bomb material.

Bolder action is in order. In particular, the five original nuclear-weapon states should seek an agreement by all states with facilities not subject to safeguards voluntarily to suspend fissile material production and place stocks in excess of military requirements under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection.

Encouraging China and Israel to participate would be key. For Israel, which does not need more fissile material and has an aging reactor at Dimona, the moratorium would make a virtue out of necessity and improve its nonproliferation record. China should support the initiative because it could lead India to slow the growth of its military fissile material stockpile.

To increase leverage further, the Obama administration and Congress should press for an investigation of the IAEA technical support programs in Pakistan, which undoubtedly have aided its bomb production program. For two decades, Pakistan has received million of dollars of IAEA help for operational upgrades and control systems for its safeguarded reactors at the same time it was building and operating reactors of the same design outside safeguards for its military program.

Taken together, these steps could persuade Pakistan to drop its opposition to negotiations to halt the further production of nuclear bomb material and help slow the expensive and dangerous South Asian arms race.