The world's five original nuclear weapons countries have all suspended production of fissile materials for new weapons and are negotiating cuts in their nuclear arsenals. But one nuclear-armed nation is heading in the opposite direction. Pakistan is steadily building more nuclear weapons, adding production capacity to produce plutonium and enrich uranium, and building new missiles to deliver nuclear warheads.
The nuclear risks in Pakistan are three-fold: its non-proliferation record is poor, there are concerns about the security of sensitive nuclear materials, and there is no sign of a slowdown in its nuclear weapons drive. A global response needs to be calibrated to address all three of these potential threats.
On Feb. 9, the Institute for Science and International Security, a non-profit group created by former UN weapons inspector David Albright, reported that Pakistan appears to be building a fourth plutonium reactor at the Khushab complex, and is expanding plutonium separation capabilities at another site. Another report, from the International Panel of Fissile Materials, says Pakistan now has 70 to 90 nuclear warheads, more than its rival India. This puts Pakistan on track to command the world's fourth-largest nuclear weapons arsenal by the end of the decade.
The evidence suggests that Pakistan is trying to develop a second-strike nuclear capability. Pakistan already has brought to a halt the negotiations in Geneva for a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, sought by President Obama and virtually the entire membership of the Disarmament Conference. Pakistan has tested cruise and other missiles that can carry strategic warheads from land or even from submarines.
North Korea and Pakistan also continue to partner each other such as in matters of missile and uranium enrichment technologies. With fears of continued nuclear proliferation and fueled by complicated regional dynamics and on-going domestic instability, it is imperative for the world to make greater efforts to persuade and pressure Pakistan to halt its nuclear buildup. Not providing sufficient attention and expanding the effort to place Pakistan's nuclear build-up as a priority issue may risk a nuclear proliferation crisis of a significant scale.
Another reason why the world needs to focus on ensuring that Pakistan's nuclear material, particular at the bulk handling facilities, remains under proper safeguards is because Pakistan is not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT. In other words, the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provide comprehensive safeguards is limited. In the longer term, this raises a further challenge of creating effective multinational mechanisms that exercise oversight over countries that remain outside the NPT and not just those countries that voluntarily operate within the system.
In the meantime, some other avenues for action are available for consideration. In 2009, ISIS reported the restart of construction of a partially built plutonium reprocessing plant at Chashma. If any French technology was used in the Chashma plant, or at the New Laboratories established near Rawalpindi, the French government could request that the facilities be subject to IAEA safeguards, even though Pakistan is not a treaty signatory. This could fall under the bilateral nuclear co-operation agreement between France and Pakistan.
Another avenue hinges on Pakistan's access to uranium. The existing three Pakistani nuclear reactors at Khushab require more than 40 tons of uranium annually. These, together with the possible establishment of a further uranium enrichment plant at Gadwal, are likely to generate demands that exceed Pakistan's current domestic uranium stockpiles. For this reason, the IAEA's provision of assistance to Pakistan in uranium mining exploration in the past has not been without controversy. Assistance to explore, mine and mill uranium should be provided only under verifiable assurances has been provided by Pakistan on its end use.
Energy security plays a crucial role for the improvement and stability of Pakistan. Providing benefits to the future development of Pakistan's civilian nuclear program, which has been struggling under decades of sanctions, in return for certain trade-offs that address international concerns over Pakistan's production of fissile material and build-up of reprocessing capabilities should be further strengthened. Joint efforts to provide Pakistan with modern, safe and secure nuclear power reactors, and, where necessary, upgrade old ones, could move Pakistan away from a calculated nuclear build-up. But the international community has not remained as seized with the issue as warranted.