Top nuclear scientist Dr R Rajaraman, emeritus pro- fessor of theoretical physics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal is a matter of great concern to India with the Nasr missile being of special concern.
The co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile
Materials and a member of the world scientists permanent
panel on Mitigation of Terrorists Acts, Dr Rajaraman tells
Rashme Sehgal why an alarming nuclear story is unfolding
in the sub-continent.
Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear programme in
the world. By 2020, it is expected to get 200 nuclear devices
most of which are targeted at India.
While countries around the globe are talking about
diminishing their nuclear stockpiles, the opposite seems to
be happening in the case of Pakistan.
It is true that Pakistan is producing more weapon-usable
fissile material each passing year. So, for that matter, is
Estimates of Pakistan’s rate of growth of nuclear warheads are often exaggerated in the West and blindly quoted
by some by Indian analysts as well.
The main thing to understand about estimates of the
number of nuclear bombs is that no one outside the respective governments will really know how many weapons have
been assembled. And the government people are not likely
Most estimates by non-governmental think-tanks and
analysts are just unverifiable hearsay. The only responsible
outside estimates are based on nuclear fissile materials
production and stocks.
So I will go by the estimates made by our International
Panel on Fissile Materials which has been tracking fissile
material production of all countries year after year.
It is true that the Pakistanis have set up 3 plutonium (Pu)
producing reactors at Khushab and a fourth is in the making. But these are believed to be heavy water reactors of
about 50 MWth (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.
Moreover, 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.
The current arsenal, frequently quoted in think-tank
reports, is supposed to be about 110 weapons. So even if
that is correct and they add 21 more in the next five years,
Pakistan cannot reach 200 warheads by 2020.
You must remember that the earlier Pakistani weapons
used highly enriched uranium produced by A Q Khan’s
centrifuges. But as Zia Mian, M H Nayyar and I have
shown in an audit we did of Pakistani uranium availability,
their domestic supply of raw uranium is limited and can
barely feed the four Khushabh reactors.
So there is unlikely to be much left for enrichment by
centrifuges. Therefore I would keep the estimate of
Pakistan’s arsenal at 130 warheads or less by 2020.
Both Pakistan and India have doubled their nuclear stock-
piles since 2007 with their weapons increasing at the rate of
ten a year.
India’s rate of warhead production is not 10 warheads a
year. Its only functioning Pu production reactor is the
Dhruva at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center which
annually produces about 18 kg of Pu which can fuel about
3, 4 bombs per year, not 10 as is stated.
The CIRUS reactor that used to produce weapons-grade
Pu at BARC was closed down as part of the India-US
Yes, this should be a matter of great concern to the people
of both countries. Unfortunately, it is not.
In response to India stating it would not hesitate to go
beyond its border to eliminate terrorists, former Pakistan
president Pervez Musharraf responded to say nuclear stockpiles were not being collected to be used at the time of a festival.
Pakistan has always maintained that its nuclear force was
intended to deter a conventional attack by India. But it has
also been using their 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
This is a way to continue with terrorism without retaliation.
China has confirmed that it is involved in at least six of
Pakistan’s nuclear projects even though it is well known that
Pakistan has not fully adopted the International Atomic
Energy Agency safeguards.
So far, in building two civilian reactors in Pakistan, China
has not strictly speaking violated the Nuclear Suppliers
Group guidelines. It has used the so-called grandfather
clause (that the agreement with Pakistan was signed before
the NSG sanctions came into being).
We must not forget that Russia had
to invoke the same argument when
starting to build our Kudangulam reactors. Furthermore, the two new civilian
reactors China is building in Pakistan
will be under strict IAEA safeguards.
Pakistan cannot avoid these safeguards.
Nuclear experts repeatedly warn of
the danger of some of these weapons
falling into the hands of terrorists.
I don’t think terror groups like the Taliban can get their
hands on a Pakistani bomb. They may have launched some
attacks at the gates of some military bases. But that is a far
cry from penetrating the rings of security that Pakistan
must undoubtedly have to guard its weapons.
Remember that these weapons, like our own in India, are
considered the crown jewels of their arsenal.
Pakistan has deployed or is developing delivery systems
for its nuclear warheads including aircraft, ballistic missiles
and cruise missiles. They have also developed the battlefield
Nasr missile to be used against India.
But there is no clarity on the chain of command on who
will authorise the use of these weapons in case war breaks
out between these two countries.
The Nasr is, in my opinion, the most dangerous development in South Asia.
It is not clear what the command and control status of
such battlefield nuclear missiles will be.
For them to be effective they have to be used in battle in
response to battlefield developments. In such situations it
may be impractical for the ground commanders to seek and
await a go-signal from the apex political leadership.
Pakistan Air Commodore Tariq Ashraf’s book Evolving
Dynamics of a Nuclear South Asia highlights the absence
of civilian and bureaucratic involvement in the Pakistan
Nuclear Control Authority. How far is this correct? Who
controls the nuclear button in Pakistan?
Although the military has a strong involvement in
Pakistan’s nuclear control, I believe that the top political
authority is also very much a part of it. The ‘button’ is controlled by a collection of people from the apex political and
How much highly enriched uranium has Pakistan
acquired as opposed to India?
According to the annual Global Fissile Material Report
2010 of IPFM, Pakistan’s stock of weapon grade HEU was
about 2.5 ± 1 ton.
This might have increased somewhat by now, but as I
have said there is not much uranium left in Pakistan to
enrich, after feeding the three Khushab reactors.
Is there any likelihood of the nuclear race between the two
countries ending in the near future?
The nuclear race may stop in a few years if neither side
develops newer types of technology, such as ballistic missile
defence or more nuclear-capable battlefield weapons. But
by saying that the race will stop I don’t mean that the
weapons will be disarmed and thrown away. But only that
further growth in the arsenals may stop.
Actually getting rid of these very dangerous weapons may
not happen for a long time, if at all. That is a scary
‘Pakistan’s Nasr missile is the most
dangerous development in South Asia’
‘If ever India loses its patience after repeated terror attacks and decides to retaliate against the terrorist
camps, Pakistan may term that a conventional military attack and invoke the nuclear option.’
‘This is a way to continue with terrorism without retaliation.’
‘I don’t think terror groups like the Taliban can get their hands on a Pakistani bomb. They may have launched some attacks at the gates of some military bases. But that is a far cry from penetrating the rings of security that Pakistan must undoubtedly have to guard its weapons.’
Dr r rajaraman.