A nuclear power's act of proliferation
Accounts by controversial scientist assert China gave Pakistan enough enriched uranium in '82 to make 2 bombs
Friday, November 13, 2009
In 1982, a Pakistani military C-130 left the western Chinese city of Urumqi with a highly unusual cargo: enough weapons-grade uranium for two atomic bombs, according to accounts written by the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, and provided to The Washington Post.
The uranium transfer in five stainless-steel boxes was part of a broad-ranging, secret nuclear deal approved years earlier by Mao Zedong and Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that culminated in an exceptional, deliberate act of proliferation by a nuclear power, according to the accounts by Khan, who is under house arrest in Pakistan.
U.S. officials say they have known about the transfer for decades and once privately confronted the Chinese -- who denied it -- but have never raised the issue in public or sought to impose direct sanctions on China for it. President Obama, who said in April that "the world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons," plans to discuss nuclear proliferation issues while visiting Beijing on Tuesday.
According to Khan, the uranium cargo came with a blueprint for a simple weapon that China had already tested, supplying a virtual do-it-yourself kit that significantly speeded Pakistan's bomb effort. The transfer also started a chain of proliferation: U.S. officials worry that Khan later shared related Chinese design information with Iran; in 2003, Libya confirmed obtaining it from Khan's clandestine network.
China's refusal to acknowledge the transfer and the unwillingness of the United States to confront the Chinese publicly demonstrate how difficult it is to counter nuclear proliferation. Although U.S. officials say China is now much more attuned to proliferation dangers, it has demonstrated less enthusiasm than the United States for imposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear efforts, a position Obama wants to discuss.
Although Chinese officials have for a quarter-century denied helping any nation attain a nuclear capability, current and former U.S. officials say Khan's accounts confirm the U.S. intelligence community's long-held conclusion that China provided such assistance.
"Upon my personal request, the Chinese Minister . . . had gifted us 50 kg [kilograms] of weapon-grade enriched uranium, enough for two weapons," Khan wrote in a previously undisclosed 11-page narrative of the Pakistani bomb program that he prepared after his January 2004 detention for unauthorized nuclear commerce.
"The Chinese gave us drawings of the nuclear weapon, gave us kg50 enriched uranium," he said in a separate account sent to his wife several months earlier.
China's Foreign Ministry last week declined to address Khan's specific assertions, but it said that as a member of the global Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1992, "China strictly adheres to the international duty of prevention of proliferation it shoulders and strongly opposes . . . proliferation of nuclear weapons in any forms."
Asked why the U.S. government has never publicly confronted China over the uranium transfer, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said, "The United States has worked diligently and made progress with China over the past 25 years. As to what was or wasn't done during the Reagan administration, I can't say."
Khan's exploits have been described in multiple books and public reports since British and U.S. intelligence services unmasked the deeds in 2003. But his own narratives -- not yet seen by U.S. officials -- provide fresh details about China's aid to Pakistan and its reciprocal export to China of sensitive uranium-enrichment technology.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington declined to comment for this article. Pakistan has never allowed the U.S. government to question Khan or other top Pakistani officials directly, prompting Congress to demand in legislation approved in September that future aid be withheld until Obama certifies that Pakistan has provided "relevant information from or direct access to Pakistani nationals" involved in past nuclear commerce.