The Other Nuclear Option

Posted: July 24, 2006 in Foreign Policy, National Security, Nukes

Photo from the Nuclear Weapon Archive.

The Washington Post has a front page story today on the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

From the article:

Pakistan has begun building what independent analysts say is a powerful new reactor for producing plutonium, a move that, if verified, would signal a major expansion of the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities and a potential new escalation in the region’s arms race.

Satellite photos of Pakistan’s Khushab nuclear site show what appears to be a partially completed heavy-water reactor capable of producing enough plutonium for 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year, a 20-fold increase from Pakistan’s current capabilities, according to a technical assessment by Washington-based nuclear experts.

The assessment’s key judgments were endorsed by two other independent nuclear experts who reviewed the commercially available satellite images, provided by Digital Globe, and supporting data. In Pakistan, officials would not confirm or deny the report, but a senior Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that a nuclear expansion was underway.

“Pakistan’s nuclear program has matured. We’re now consolidating the program with further expansions,” the official said. The expanded program includes “some civilian nuclear power and some military components,” he said.

The development raises fresh concerns about a decades-old rivalry between Pakistan and India. Both countries already possess dozens of nuclear warheads and a variety of missiles and other means for delivering them.

This is coming from the same country that was the hub of the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network, which sold nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

This is also a country with a social element that has strong Islamist, anti-Western sentiment bubbling under the surface. The head of state, General Pervez Musharraf, is caught in a very delicate political balancing act, where he has to try to keep the United States and its allies happy with assistance, intelligence, and cooperation in the fight against terrorism and rebuliding Afghanistan, as well as the more extreme elements of Pakistani society which have already plotted to assassinate him three times and tried it twice.

About a year ago, CNN Presents did a one hour program on the possibility of a terrorist attack involving nuclear or radiological material. One of the scenarios explored in the program as to how a terrorist organization might get the materials for an attack was through Pakistan. One worst case scenario for this would be if Musharraf is overthrown or assassinated, and a new Islamist government hostile towards the west takes power. If that happened, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal would effectively be at its disposal to use against whoever it wants.

Also worth keeping in mind is the historical cultural and political tensions between India and Pakistan which have flared up from time to time. It wasn’t too long ago that Pakistan and India came very close to breaking out into a full-fledged war, and both sides had nuclear weapons stockpiles ready to go.

More recently, you had President Bush’s visit to India back in March which resulted in a landmark deal with the Indian government on its civilian nuclear program, and the train attacks in Mumbai which killed 174 people a few weeks ago, leading some to speculate whether Pakistan was involved.

Other than in the Middle East, I couldn’t think of a worse possible scenario where two opposing countries with a history of conflict that also have nuclear weapons aimed at each other and ready to fire at any moment.

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