Pakistan: Threats to Fissile Materials and Issue of Disaster Management

Dr. Mohammed Badrul Alam

Like in any nuclear weapon state, multiple vulnerabilities exist in a nuclear weapons complex. In the case of Pakistan, it is possible that groups or individuals may violate security rules for a variety of reasons, including profit making, settling a vendetta, or religious or ideological motives. Rogue elements may try to gain control over sensitive items for their own use or to transfer these items to another state or to other non-state actors for financial or ideological reasons. A special concern is that Pakistan, as its history suggests, may suffer another military coup at some point of time. A new leadership, in that case, can be expected to place a high priority on seizing the country's nuclear assets.

The threat of theft or diversion of fissile material or nuclear weapons falls into three general areas: 1) Outsider Threat–The possibility that armed individuals or groups from outside a facility gain access and steal nuclear weapons, weapons components or fissile material; 2) Insider Threat–The possibility that individuals who work inside the facility will remove fissile material, nuclear weapons, or weapons components without proper authorization; 3) Insider/Outsider Threat–The possibility that insiders and outsiders conspire together in connivance to obtain fissile materials, weapons, or weapon components.

If Pakistan suffers extreme instability or civil war, additional threats to its strategic nuclear assets are also possible. This may happen, as Muthiah Allagappa(2001) comments, due to military’s inherent struggle for attaining legitimacy and in “military’s inability to construct an acceptable political framework for the management of the state, including the acquisition and exercise of state power” and in facilitating the emergence of a viable civil society:

Loss of Central Control of Storage Facilities– Clear lines of communication code and control over weapons, weapons components, and fissile material may be broken or lost entirely.

Coup– In the most extreme case, a coup takes place and the new regime attempts to gain control of the entire nuclear complex. The New York Times (March 11, 2007) report suggests US policy makers envisioning alternatives for Pakistan after Musharraf. Under this scenario, the Vice-Chief of the Army, Ahsan Saleem Hyat, take over from General Musharraf as head of the military and former banker Mohammedmian Soomro installed as president, with General Hyat wielding most of the power. In this context, Sydney J. Freedberg writes in Natonal Journal (December 16, 2006), “He is just the latest leader to stand precariously atop Pakistan's three ever-shifting tectonic plates - generals, politicians and mullahs. Sooner, not later, he will lose his footing. To understand what might happen next, it's important to understand the three major power centers at work in Pakistan." It is also possible that foreign government(s) may intervene to prevent hostile entity from seizing the strategic nuclear assets.

In the current situation, Pakistan must also increasingly worry that experts from the nuclear complex could steal sensitive information or assist nuclear weapons programs of other countries or terrorist groups. The information could include highly classified nuclear weapons data, exact storage locations of weapons or fissile material, access control arrangements, or other sensitive, operational details about these weapons.

On the related issue of disaster management, there is no reference in Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine as to the appropriate disaster control system should a potential accident does occur. Pakistan, at the present time, does not have anything even close to the capabilities of managing a nuclear disaster, should it occur either from a nuclear first strike or from a retaliatory strike by the adversary.

In a chilling report published by Britain based New Scientists (May 24, 2002), it was reported that a massive loss of men and materials would occur should a nuclear exchange take place between India and Pakistan. As per this report, "At least 2.9 million people would be killed and another 1.4 million severely injured based on 10 Hiroshima type bombs, five in India (Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkata, New Delhi, and Chennai) and five in Pakistan (Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Islamabad, Rawalpindi). India side with 1.5 million dead and 900,000 injured. and Pakistan side with 1.2 million dead and 600, 000 injured. If the bomb explodes on the ground instead of in the air, resulting radioactive dust could kill more people. Due to prevailing winds from west to east, India would incur more casualties than Pakistan. This is just ten bombs, which is 1/10th of estimated nuclear bomb both countries are believed to have possessed."

Another report published in Indian Express (May 28, 2002), provided even a scarier picture. "Nuclear exchange could kill up to 12 million people at one stroke plus injury up to 7 million. Even a so-called ' limited war' would have cataclysmic effect overhauling hospitals across Asia and requiring vast foreign assistance to battle radioactive contamination, famine and disease. More deaths would occur later caused by urban firestones, ignited by the heat of a nuclear exchange, deaths from longer term radiation, or the disease and starvation expected to spread."

In this regard, India's Home Ministry is currently raising eight battalions to tackle natural disasters and combat nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. In all likelihood, Pakistan is expected to follow India’s path in having a National Emergency Response Force battalions so as to be deployed in strategic locations under the supervision of the director-general of civil defense should such consequence management contingencies arise.

Author Note
Dr. Mohammed Badrul Alam is Professor of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India.