The South Asia Channel

What to do with Pakistan’s HEU?

One of the first cables released by the website WikiLeaks was a May, 2009 cable regarding the delay of removing High Enriched Uranium (HEU) by the U.S. from Pakistan’s Atomic Research Reactor-1 (PARR) near Islamabad. In 2007, the Pakistani government agreed to allow the U.S. to ship the unknown quantity of HEU back to the ...

TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

One of the first cables released by the website WikiLeaks was a May, 2009 cable regarding the delay of removing High Enriched Uranium (HEU) by the U.S. from Pakistan’s Atomic Research Reactor-1 (PARR) near Islamabad. In 2007, the Pakistani government agreed to allow the U.S. to ship the unknown quantity of HEU back to the U.S. However, in 2009 when U.S. technical experts arrived to discuss the fuel transfer, the Pakistani government balked for fear of local media backlash of the U.S. "stealing" Pakistani fuel. The event provided one more example of the poor relationship between the two countries and the U.S. not respecting Pakistani national concerns.

PARR-1 is part of the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) complex of three research reactors near Islamabad. Under the 1955 Atoms for Peace program, the United States provided uranium fuel and technical assistance to Pakistan to build the reactor. Ground broke in 1965, with it coming online in 1966.

PARR-1 is a 10 Megawatt pool type research reactor (fuel rods at the bottom of a pool of open water, the typical design for most reactors) that used HEU to conduct physics experiments and the creation of isotopes for medical purposes. In addition, the facility was put under full scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards to ensure Pakistan did not misuse the HEU for weapons. Safeguards are country specific and but generally involve IAEA personnel applying monitoring tools to ensure compliance that no amount of HEU is diverted for weapons construction.

The U.S. supplied a limited amount of HEU for PARR-1, which Pakistan could not replace once it ran out. As a result, in 1991, Pakistan removed the HEU from the reactor and replaced itl with its own 20% low enriched uranium (similar to what is used in the Tehran Research Reactor). The U.S. HEU was stored on site, where it remains. The U.S. fears that the HEU, perhaps enough to fashion the core for an improvised nuclear device, could fall into the wrong hands.

Securing HEU and loose nuclear material is a key nonproliferation effort not just in Pakistan but around the world, as evidenced by the latest announcement of Belarus giving up its HEU. However, the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. regarding nuclear issues is not on the same page. The U.S. views Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and infrastructure through the counterterrorism prism, while Pakistan views their arsenal through the lens of its strategic rivalry with India.

While the removal of the HEU is an important nonproliferation step, the way the U.S. handled the removal, just declaring it should remove it since it was its own fuel, failed to put into context fears of the U.S. removing the only deterrent Pakistan has against India. Even if the fuel was not Pakistani, nor involved with their nuclear program, the public perception of the United States trumping Pakistani sovereignty resulted in the freezing of the fuel transfer.

This perception originates in the larger belief that the United States already infringes on Pakistani sovereignty in regards to drone strikes, the often misplaced notion of large numbers of U.S. troops in Pakistan, and the fear that America will swoop in and remove Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The perception is largely false, but remains imbedded in Pakistani discourse, and any agreement that reaches the press that highlights nuclear fuel going back to the U.S. from Pakistan would tap right into this perception. 

Instead, the U.S. should get on the same page with Pakistan and put nuclear security in the same context with strategic stability with India. If the U.S. fuel is to remain, then the U.S. should consult with Pakistan to ensure it is in fact secure, under the same security as its other nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons storage areas. The U.S. should continue financial and technical assistance to Pakistani personnel to secure its own material and weapons. It can accomplish security at the facility by increasing human and electronic monitoring, redundant security measures such as stronger gates, and if not already done so, placing the material is large, heavy, tightly controlled concrete casks.

U.S. officials can coordinate with Pakistani leaders to be regularly updated on the security of the facility as well as access to the HEU to verify security.  In addition, Pakistan should continue to work with the IAEA, since the facility is under safeguards, to ensure credible international assurance that the facility is indeed safe and secure.

The U.S. and Pakistan should refrain from any public discourse on the transfer as any public discussion would only be detrimental, as it is unlikely Pakistani leaders could overcome the perception of U.S. invasion of sovereignty, however misplaced. 

Most importantly, the U.S. needs to deemphasize the importance of the security of Pakistan’s arsenal and HEU. It is important, but not as important as the strategic relationship with India or Pakistani efforts to fight insurgents in the tribal areas. Removal of the HEU would be ideal and may occur over time. However, it appears that Pakistan currently does not trust American intentions, publicly or privately. Only through working on confidence building measures through regional issues between Pakistan and India can Pakistan and U.S. get on the same page on nuclear security.

Philip Maxon was formerly a  program associate with the New America Foundation’s Nuclear Strategyand Nonproliferation Initiative, and works with New America’s National Security Studies Program.

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