Monday, January 12, 2009

Safety and Pakistan's nuclear program

About a year ago, I had a post on the (lack of) safety of Pakistan's nuclear program (see Pakistan's Nuclear Program or: How I learned to start worrying and hate the bomb). Now, there is a piece in yesterday's Sunday Magazine that brings up the safety again. Nothing is really new in there. I do find it interesting that nuclear weapons are usually for deterrence against an external attack. But in the case of Pakistan, everyone is worried about its internal stability because of its nuclear arsenal. But then we also have the crazies? When I was in Pakistan last month, it was scary to see "pundits" on talk shows exhibit such a cavalier attitude towards the use of nuclear weapons against India (this was soon after the Mumbai attacks). It wouldn't be so scary if I believed that this was just rhetoric. The problem is that many still consider atomic bombs just a bigger version of regular bombs and have not really considered the consequences - both for Pakistan and India (up to 12 million immediate casualties - if it gets real bad). In this context, it was scary to read about Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood - a Pakistani nuclear scientist - and his belief in the "end of days" and of finding science in the Qur'an:
Soon after Kidwai took office, he also faced the case of the eccentric nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who helped build gas centrifuges for the Pakistani nuclear program, using blueprints Khan had stolen from the Netherlands. Mahmood then moved on to the country’s next huge project: designing the reactor at Khushab that was to produce the fuel Pakistan needed to move to the next level — a plutonium bomb.

An autodidact intellectual with grand aspirations, Mahmood was fascinated by the links between science and the Koran. He wrote a peculiar treatise arguing that when morals degrade, disaster cannot be far behind. Over time, his colleagues began to wonder if Mahmood was mentally sound. They were half amused and half horrified by his fascination with the role sunspots played in triggering the French and Russian Revolutions, World War II and assorted anticolonial uprisings. “This guy was our ultimate nightmare,” an American intelligence official told me in late 2001, when The New York Times first reported on Mahmood. “He had access to the entire Pakistani program. He knew what he was doing. And he was completely out of his mind.”

While Khan appeared to be in the nuclear-proliferation business chiefly for the money, Mahmood made it clear to friends that his interest was religious: Pakistan’s bomb, he told associates, was “the property of a whole Ummah,” referring to the worldwide Muslim community. He wanted to share it with those who might speed “the end of days” and lead the way for Islam to rise as the dominant religious force in the world.

Eventually Mahmood’s religious intensity, combined with his sympathy for Islamic extremism, scared his colleagues. In 1999, just as Kidwai was beginning to examine the staff of the nuclear enterprise, Mahmood was forced to take an early retirement. At a loss for what to do, Mahmood set up a nonprofit charity, Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, which was ostensibly designed to send relief to fellow Muslims in Afghanistan. In August 2001, as the Sept. 11 plotters were making their last preparations in the United States, Mahmood and one of his colleagues at the charity met with Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, over the course of several days in Afghanistan. There is little doubt that Mahmood talked to the two Qaeda leaders about nuclear weapons, or that Al Qaeda desperately wanted the bomb. George Tenet, the C.I.A. chief, wrote later that intelligence reports of the meeting were “frustratingly vague.” They included an account that there was talk of how to design a simple firing mechanism, and that a senior Qaeda leader displayed a canister that may have contained some nuclear material (though almost certainly not bomb-grade).
Musharraf tried to tamp down American alarm. He told Tenet and Mowatt-Larssen that “men in caves can’t do this.” He had Mahmood and his colleague rearrested, though they were never prosecuted. Pakistan did not want to risk a trial in which the country’s own nuclear secrets came out. Today, Mahmood, like Khan, is back home, under tight surveillance that seems intended primarily to keep him a safe distance from reporters.
First of all, whoa!!?? The role of sunspots in the French and Russian Revolutions?? Now I wasn't going to be too upset about Bashiruddin Mahmood's seeming willingness to blow up the world - but such bad astronomy. That is offensive!

Regarding the nuclear issue, Pakistanis need to see this as a threat to themselves. Actions from any such nut-job can lead to an annihilation of Pakistan itself (either through self-terrorism or via a reaction from India after first-use). Lets really hope Bashiruddin was an aberration. Read the full NYT article here.

On an aside, here is a disturbing story about militants in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Pathetic and sick individuals!