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Nuclear Security Foot Dragging in Pakistan

by John Reed on December 1, 2010

For years, just about everyone I know has been worrying about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear material; the major concern being keeping it out of militant hands. Nevertheless, we’ve been publicly assured time and again by the U.S. government that Pakistan will be able to keep its nuclear material safe.

Now we see that, in 2009, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan was very concerned that Islamabad could lose control over some of the dangerous material.

From The New York Times’ latest article on WikiLeaks’ release of diplomatic cables:

The ambassador’s concern was a stockpile of highly enriched uranium, sitting for years near an aging research nuclear reactor in Pakistan. There was enough to build several “dirty bombs” or, in skilled hands, possibly enough for an actual nuclear bomb.

In the cable, dated May 27, 2009, the ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, reported that the Pakistani government was yet again dragging its feet on an agreement reached two years earlier to have the United States remove the material.

She wrote to senior American officials that the Pakistani government had concluded that “the ‘sensational’ international and local media coverage of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons made it impossible to proceed at this time.” A senior Pakistani official, she said, warned that if word leaked out that Americans were helping remove the fuel, the local press would certainly “portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

Worst of all:

The fuel is still there.

It may be the most unnerving evidence of the complex relationship — sometimes cooperative, often confrontational, always wary — between America and Pakistan nearly 10 years into the American-led war in Afghanistan.

It goes on to say that the Obama administration is seriously concerned about a Pakistani government insider slowly siphoning off enough fuel to one day make a weapon.

In fact, Ms. Patterson, in a Feb. 4, 2009, cable, wrote that “our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GOP [government of Pakistan] facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”

Mr. Obama’s review concluded by determining that there were two “vital” American interests in the region. One was defeating Al Qaeda. The second, not previously reported, was making sure terrorists could never gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear program. That goal was classified, to keep from angering Islamabad.

And wait a second, we gave this stuff to Pakistan???

The highly enriched uranium that Ms. Patterson wanted removed from the research reactor came from the United States in the mid-1960s. In those days, under the Atoms for Peace program, little thought was given to proliferation, and Pakistan seemed too poor and backward to join the nuclear race.

I’m not sure any more needs to be said about how scary this is. It confirms many peoples’ doubts about Pakistan’s desire or ability to do the utmost to prevent the most powerful weapons in the world from falling into the wrong hands.

– John Reed

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