By: Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON – US and Pakistani officials have begun behind-the-scenes talks aimed at achieving a greater US role in securing Pakistan’s nuclear materials, including a proposal to ship some highly enriched uranium to the United States for disposal, according to two administration officials with direct knowledge of the discussions.
If successful, the talks between nonproliferation specialists at the State and Energy departments and their Pakistani counterparts would mark a breakthrough in efforts to persuade Pakistan to accept greater assistance in preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear fuel or the technology to build a nuclear weapon.
“The Pakistanis take this very seriously,” said a senior US official involved in the talks who asked not to be identified discussing the sensitive negotiations. “Pakistan faces some unique challenges.”
The government of Pakistan, which is believed to have as many as 100 nuclear bombs, has been highly secretive about its nuclear activities for fear that the United States might try to destroy its arsenal or that its archenemy, nuclear-armed India, might launch a first strike. But the growing threat to the Pakistani government from the Taliban – and its allies in the Al Qaeda terrorist network – has given Pakistani leaders a new reason to cooperate with the United States, according to the officials.
“We believe the command and control of the nuclear arsenal is a primary concern of the Pakistanis,” said the US official. The United States now provides some basic assistance to Pakistan in nuclear security. Measures include training Pakistani officials on export control and providing detection equipment for its seaports, airports, and border crossings to help thwart nuclear smuggling.
However, the new measures under consideration would for the first time give the United States access to some of Pakistan’s nuclear ingredients, though not the actual weapons, which are reportedly stored unassembled under the control of a 10,000-member security force headed by a two-star general.
Two of the key proposals under discussion are a joint program to secure or destroy radioactive materials that could be used to make a crude nuclear device, and shipment to the United States of some of the highly enriched uranium fuel used in Pakistani civilian power plants. The enriched fuel is believed to be sought by terrorists as possible material for a weapon of mass destruction, the officials said.
Pakistan’s embassy did not respond to several requests for comment.
Top officials in both countries continue to express public confidence that Pakistan’s nuclear materials are safe from theft. President Obama, who is scheduled to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington tomorrow, told a news conference last week that “we can make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure because the Pakistani Army, I think, recognizes the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands.”
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters yesterday that he, too, is “comfortable” that the nuclear weapons cannot be stolen. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Mullen, who visited Pakistan last week. “I don’t see that in any way imminent whatsoever at this particular point in time.”
Yet many nuclear specialists both inside and outside the US government expressed worry that such expressions of confidence do not reflect the full extent of Pakistan’s nuclear vulnerability – which, they say, goes far beyond the weapons themselves.
In addition to its arsenal, Pakistan has a vast network of nuclear facilities, equipment, and scientists – the extent of which the United States and its allies know very little. Any of those elements could be pilfered by terrorists or their sympathizers inside the Pakistani government or military, the international nuclear specialists said.
They point to the fact that A.Q. Khan, the builder of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, oversaw a black market that sold nuclear materials and know-how to a variety of international customers, including Iran and North Korea, for years before the scheme was revealed by the CIA in 2004.
“What other society has leaked nuclear secrets like Pakistan?” asked David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector who is now president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, citing the documented evidence that classified bomb designs and centrifuges to enrich uranium into a bomb-making grade were sold to a variety of sources. “Why do people just sit there and say everything is fine?”
Others have raised similar alarms. The Congressional Research Service, an arm of Congress, issued a report last month that stated, “While nuclear weapons are currently under firm control, with warheads disassembled, technology could be sold off by insiders during a worsened crisis.”
US officials hope to persuade the Pakistani government in the coming months that the importance given to the security of the weapons themselves must be extended to other parts of its nuclear industry, according to the officials. The US government official involved in the talks stressed, however, that there are legal restrictions on how far the United States can go in providing assistance. Because Pakistan is not a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the US government is limited in how much assistance it can provide to Pakistan on nuclear matters.
Yet specialists said that if Pakistan’s government were willing to accept more help, the United States could – and should – find ways to overcome those restrictions.
Bernard Finel, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, a Washington think tank, said enhancing nuclear-security cooperation “would be a really valuable place for us to spend a lot of diplomatic energy.”
“The worst-case scenarios in Pakistan are worse than anywhere else,” he added.
Bender can be reached at email@example.com.