By Momin Iftikhar

Participants of Nuclear Security Summit Washinton 2010

The recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit has had the world attention riveted at Washington where 47 nations, represented by top echelon of leadership, gathered to craft an agreement that would keep the nuclear technology safe from the reach of terrorists. This was the largest assembly of world leaders hosted by an American President since the 1945 San Francisco Conference that founded the United Nations. Its aim; to have all nuclear materials secured from theft or diversion within four years. For Pakistan it was a forum to project its credentials as a responsible Nuclear Weapon State; claiming an equal status with India , a country which despite many slips and let ups has been successful in finding legitimacy outside of the NPT. It was pleasant to feel the thaw setting in and even as some countries tried to act as spoilers it was a moment to savor. Pakistan on the basis of its solid performance to secure its nuclear assets stood tall and confident of its credentials.

The threat of nuclear terrorism is clear, present and multifarious. It is not necessary for the terrorists to commandeer nuclear bombs, a contingency which remains highly improbable but even a small quantity of radio active material used in a ‘dirty device ’ can cause irreparable damage if detonated in a populated areas. The Summit sought to eliminate the threat of nuclear terrorism by weaving together the efforts by the entire international community to enforce regimes that would preclude leaking out of radioactive material at tactical and strategic levels.

The Summit provided Pakistan an invaluable opportunity to brandish its credentials as a responsible Nuclear Weapon State that understood its obligations that accompany a nuclear status. This was an occasion to silence its detractors and reassure global community that the country had evolved credible command and control institutions and watertight regimes that were comparable in effectiveness and procedural efficacy to any country in the world. The message was loud and clear; we have left behind the trauma caused by Dr. Qadeer’s misconduct which was essentially a result of personal aberration rather than a deliberate pursuit of state policy; we deserve the trust of the international community to open its door for nuclear trade and transfer of technology for peaceful purposes; our nuclear material is guarded in as best a manner as possible.

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A prominent aspect of the deliberations at Washington was the hectic manipulations by the anti Pakistan lobbies to queer the pitch for Pakistan. Most prominent of such quarter, understandably, were the Indians who kept raking up the outdated issue of Dr. Qadeer’s indiscretions and the threat posed to the Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal by the an imaginary political instability caused by extremist elements. While Manmohan Singh maintained a posture of statesmanship by avoiding to directly name Pakistan, the Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and the Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao went about the business of mudslinging at Pakistan with an abandon during official level meetings and interaction with other countries on the sidelines of the summit. A report by Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for science and International affairs, whose release coincided with the Safety Summit made similarly misleading assertions. Academic perspective aside, one would like to take issue with such intellectuals and their sources that are locked on to such fossilized and outdated positions.

Even as its echoes continue to linger, there is an emerging realization that Dr. Qadeer saga is a thing of the past. It is now increasingly acknowledged that advancing Pakistan’s nuclear program, on a track parallel and linked to Indian effort, required utmost confidentiality, total autonomy  and unflinching trust for head of nuclear program who was working in an environment marked by total secrecy and compartmentalization. Those days are well behind us; thanks to the atomic detonation by India on 11 May 1998 that enabled Pakistan to bring its own closeted capability out in the open. Our nuclear capability is now overt and necessary mechanisms in place to safeguard it against any conceivable threat. The Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) was operational in Feb 2000 to oversee the nuclear security related issues. Disclosures of the activities of the global network in 2003 – 2004 only resulted in further tightening of nuts and bolts of the command and control systems with improved organizational practices and tighter structures for ensuring nuclear safety and security.

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Maintaining an unblemished track record ever since, Pakistan’s position regarding the safety of its nuclear assets is beginning to make its mark . President Obama reiterated Washington’s confidence in the effectiveness of the Pakistani safeguards. “I feel confident about Pakistan’s security arrangements for their nuclear weapons” he said. It was also fair of him, during a press conference, when he refused to single out Pakistan in response to a loaded question;  calling instead for a need for every country to take better steps to secure fissile materials. He even cited the example of a US Air Force plane carrying armed nuclear missiles by mistake; saying that those responsible for the slip were held accountable.

An important aspect of the nuclear security that went missing during the terrorism focused Summit was the threat posed by poor management of the nuclear power plants due to incompetence and lax controls; a malaise that afflicts India badly. Only two days before the Summit commenced there was a radiation alert in New Delhi caused by nine items emitting strong radiations. Their presence had become known once a man exhibiting symptoms related to high exposure to nuclear radiations came for admission in a local hospital. Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope of Cobalt was confirmed as the source of radiation. While India remains obsessed with the improbable scenario of hijacking of Pakistani nuclear assets by extremists it should be cognizant of the severe damage that small quantities of radioactive material detonated through a dirty bomb can cause in densely populated areas. Many indigenous terrorist organizations in India, given an opportunity, would be tempted to embark on such venture.  A few months earlier the drinking water cooler was laced by tritium by an insider in the Kaiga nuclear plant. India has also not been able to manage the affairs of its nuclear trained personnel. A nuclear scientists in India committed suicide under suspicious circumstances last June while two Indian scientists have been named by the US to have been associated with Iran’s clandestine nuclear program.

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The acknowledgement of Pakistan’s credentials as a responsible nuclear state is hard earned and in this context we need to build upon the progress made so far. Once the US and Russian governments acknowledge the effectiveness of Pakistan’s command and control measures it is something that should make us stand tall among the comity of nations with a sense of pride and accomplishment. However in the realm of nuclear security, constant and untiring vigil is the name of the game. We should also work untiringly to translate this visible thaw into an institutionalized flow of nuclear material and technology to Pakistan which is well poised and has trained crop of scientists to harness these for the well being of its masses.