The road to Pakistan’s uranium enrichment: in memory of Ghulam Ishaq Khan

The road to Pakistan’s uranium enrichment: in memory of Ghulam Ishaq Khan

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In December 1976, my wife and our two young daughters came to Pakistan to spend our winter vacation with my late younger sister, Razia in Karachi. We used to come regularly to get away from the cold in Holland and enjoy Karachi’s winter season. In Karachi I met General Imtiaz, Military Secretary to Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto, through his cousin, a close friend of mine at the Technical University of Berlin.

I was studying physical metallurgy and he was doing electronics. We used to cook together on weekends. General Imtiaz took me to see Mr. Bhutto. During our conversation, I mentioned that I was working on the uranium enrichment technology project in Holland. Mr. Bhutto was immediately interested. One thing led to another and he requested me to set up an initial programme in Pakistan asking me to stay on and not return to Holland. It was a difficult decision – I had a good job there with excellent prospects, the children were going to a Dutch school and my wife’s elderly parents lived there. She would have to leave everything behind – family, friends, culture – but we decided to make the change anyway.

The first six months were very difficult. I was attached with Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission as advisor and the bureaucracy made it practically impossible to get anything done. After threatening to leave, the Project was made independent and I was put in charge. 

To facilitate our activities, Mr. Bhutto established a Coordination Board consisting of Mr. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Mr. A.G.N. Kazi and Mr. Agha Shahi. All three proved to be worth their weight in gold as far as the Project was concerned.

Since Mr. Ghulam Ishaq Khan played the main role in our success for 17 years, I would like to pay tribute to that great, indomitable, honest and hardworking gentleman. From the beginning, we were on the same wave length regarding all matters dealing with the Project.

The Pakistan enrichment experience demonstrated that if a nation is sincere and determined to achieve a certain goal, it can be done.

Dr. A.Q. Khan

My colleagues and I were at ease with him and we greatly appreciated his regular visits to Kahuta. He was our biggest supporter and helped us wholeheartedly in whatever way he could. Later on, in recognition of his monumental services to the country, I named the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute in Topi after him. This great man was born on January 20, 1915 and I doubt this country will ever be able to produce people as patriotic as Mr. Bhutto and Mr. Ghulam Ishaq Khan again, irrespective of their political legacies.

When the Western countries placed embargoes on even the most harmless items, we switched over to indigenous production-- even of sophisticated electronic, electrical and vacuum equipment. It can truly be said that this was an indigenous Pakistani effort. 

Under normal circumstances, the usual procedure for setting up an industrial plant is decision, feasibility report, basic research, applied research, construction of a model and construction of a pilot plant.

This usually takes a substantial amount of time. We didn’t have that time so all the steps were started simultaneously. While the preliminary work was being carried out, procurement of essential and sophisticated equipment and material was initiated, the first prototypes were manufactured, a pilot plant was set up and blueprints were being prepared for the construction of the main facility at Kahuta. The decision to take this path ensured our success in record time.

The Pakistan enrichment experience demonstrated that if a nation is sincere and determined to achieve a certain goal, it can be done. During those early years, we worked 16 to 18 hours a day and I would like to emphasise that our success is due, not only to the determination and patriotism of the staff, but also to the sacrifices made by their families.

By 1983 we were producing weapon-grade enriched uranium and were working on the design of a weapon. Also in 1983 and early 1984, we were carrying out successful cold tests. In a cold test, a core of depleted uranium is used instead of one of enriched uranium. The rest is exactly the same. By the middle of 1984 we were ready for a real test.

We showed the cold test films and results to Mr. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who was overjoyed. As Chairman of Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), I wrote a letter to General Zia informing him of our readiness to test a real weapon. The letter and accompanying file were delivered to General Zia by General Mian Abdul Waheed, VCOAS at the time. I was personally called by General Zia, congratulated and given a warm welcome. All these facts have been verified, with documents that unambiguously confirm the legality of the claims made by KRL as to who provided Pakistan with its impregnable defence.

General Zia later went to India to watch a cricket match and met Rajiv Gandhi. India, at that time, had nearly 500,000 troops along our common border. Before returning from that trip, it is reported that General Zia told Gandhi that if he did not order his troops to be withdrawn, he would order an attack with nuclear weapons.

National Security Advisor to Rajiv Ghandi, Mr. Behramnam, later wrote in his memoirs that a perspiring Rajiv had told him that Zia had gone mad.

“Ask the Army Chief to withdraw the troops immediately,” he said. A big war with destruction to both sides had been avoided.

After returning from India, General Zia called a meeting of the Coordination Board and myself. After some discussion it was decided not to test a device at that time as the Americans were active in Afghanistan and were supplying us with weapons and money. We had to wait until 1998 before the opportunity arose to test our bombs. Teams from PAEC and KRL had made all the arrangements at Chaghi and on May 28, 1998, Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad and I flew to Dalbandin by special plane, accompanied by Colonel Ghazali (later a Brigadier).

From Dalbandin we flew to the site by helicopter where Lt. General Zulfiqar Ali Khan was already present to help with the arrangements.

Initially Mr. Nawaz Sharif, who was Prime Minister at the time, was  careful and cautious, but after discussions he gave a go-ahead. All the tests were successful and all our efforts and hard work had finally been rewarded. Since that date, there have not been any serious misadventures on our borders with India.

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan NI & Bar, HI is famous Pakistani nuclear scientist and a metallurgical engineer. He is widely regarded as the founder of gas-centrifuge enrichment technology for Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent program.  The President, Islamic Republic of Pakistan conferred upon Dr. Khan the award of Nishan-i-Imtiaz on 14 August, 1996 and 14 August, 1998. He is also a recipient of Hilal-i-Imtiaz. Dr. Khan is the only Pakistani to have received the highest civil award of “Nishan-i-Imtiaz” twice. Twitter: @DrAQK_official

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