Remembering Unsung Heroes: Munir Ahmed Khan

The tremendous contribution made by Munir Ahmed Khan in making Pakistan nuclear.

By Usman Shabbir

The Multan Conference, Jan 20, 1972: The day the bomb was born

Bhutto began the nuclear quest with his characteristic sense of urgency. He had taken power in mid-December 1971, and in January he hastily called together some fifty of Pakistan’s top scientists and government officials for what was to be a very secret meeting. At the time, the new government was still in a state of enormous confusion, and Bhutto’s aides originally scheduled in the meeting for the town of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. It was January, with winter storms blowing down from Afghanistan to the north, and Quetta had no facilities adequately heated for the selected scientists and bureaucrats to meet in. No one complained, when, the government laid on military planes to fly the freezing scientists south and east to the town of Multan. The day was sparkling clear, and Bhutto convened the meeting under a brightly coloured canvas canopy, on the lawn of a stately old Colonial mansion. The scientists and administrators who were there were far and away the best brains in Pakistan, and some were as good as could be found anywhere in the world. The Pakistani people and their Islamic forebears had historically nurtured a rich scientific tradition, and the country, though in some ways underdeveloped could count on a surprisingly strong scientific establishment. Three names are especially worth remembering.

Abdus Salam – the Professor to his worshipping younger colleagues – had founded the Third World-oriented International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979.

Dr. Ishrat Usmani had gained prominence as Chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and would go on to build his reputation as an international civil servant specializing in energy questions at the United Nations.

And the man Bhutto would name to replace Usmani as head of the nuclear programme and the PAEC till his retirement in 1991, Munir Ahmed Khan, had just come with high marks from the staff of the very organization that is supposed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. MunirAhmed Khan was a nuclear engineer of international standing, and he spent nearly 14 years at the IAEA in Vienna, where he was the Head of Reactor Engineering, before joining PAEC, and he had organized more than twenty technical and international conferences on heavy water reactors, advanced gas cooled reactors, plutonium utilization, and small and medium power reactors. In the late 1970s, Director General of IAEA offered him the post of Deputy Director General in Vienna, but he refused it to accomplish his mission in Pakistan. He was the first Asian scientist to be appointed at the IAEA and later in 1986, he was elected as Chairman of the Board of Directors of IAEA in Vienna.

There was great deal of enthusiasm and joy. Bhutto started slowly. He spoke of Pakistan’s defeat in the war with India, and vowed that he would vindicate the country’s honour. He said that he had always wanted Pakistan to take the nuclear road, but nobody had listened to him. Now fate had placed him in a position where he could make the decision, he had the people of Pakistan behind him, and he wanted to go ahead. Pakistan was going to have the bomb, and the scientists sitting under the shamiana at Multan were going to make it for him. So Bhutto had all these boys together, these scientists, and there were senior people, very senior people, and junior people, and youngsters fresh with their PhDs in nuclear physics, and he said: Look, we’re going to have the bomb.” He said “Can you give it to me?” So, they started saying “Oh yes, yes, yes. You can have it. You can have it.” But Bhutto wanted more. He paused them. “How long will it take?” he asked. There was a lively debate on the time needed to make the bomb, and finally one scientist dared to say that maybe it could be done in five years. Bhutto smiled, lifted his hand, and dramatically thrust forward three fingers.” Three years”, he said.” I want it in three years”. The atmosphere suddenly became electric. It was then that one of the junior men – S.A.Butt, who under Munir Khan’s guiding hand would come to play a major role in making the bomb possible – jumped to his feet and clamoured for his leader’s attention. “It can be done in three years”, Butt shouted excitedly. Bhutto was very much amused and he said, “Well, much as I appreciate your enthusiasm, this is a very serious political decision, which Pakistan must make, and perhaps all Third World countries must make one day, because it is coming. So can you do it? “And they said, “Yes, we can do it, given the resources and given the facilities. ”Bhutto’s answer was simple.” I shall find you the resources and I shall find you the facilities”.

This then was the day the bomb was born, the meeting at Multan that set the seal on Pakistan’s nuclear future. From that moment, Pakistan would begin a national crash programme to get the bomb. It was a historic move.

The meeting set the stage and also helped select the actors. Most of the scientists came along. Few did not. Even Z.A.Bhutto, for all his powers of persuasion, could not convince some of the senior men, including the longtime friend and adviser, the future Nobel laureate Abdus Salam. Bhutto probably feared that any open condemnation of the project from Salam could severely split Pakistan’s nuclear scientists, many of whom revered him. His opposition could also trigger alarm bells among the scientists and diplomats around the world. So some time after the meeting, a special emissary was sent to Salam, who had returned to his home in Britain, to brief him on the programme and to assure him that it was really peaceful in intent.

A second, lesser obstacle was the longtime head of the PAEC, Dr Ishrat Usmani, who had opposed the road to the bomb because at the time Pakistan did not have the necessary infrastructure needed for such a technologically giant and ambitious project. Given Usmani’s reluctance, Bhutto fired Usmani, promoting him upstairs to the post of Secretary of the newly created Ministry of Science and Technology. He became a figurehead and soon left Pakistan, taking a post at the UN. In his place, as the new Chairman of the PAEC and the man who would make the nuclear dream come true, Bhutto named one of the enthusiasts of the Multan meeting, Munir Ahmed Khan. Trained at the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States and a long time staff member of the IAEA, Munir Khan outlived his patron Bhutto to become the spirit and the symbol of the Third World nuclear ambitions, both on the civilian side and in the development of nuclear weapons.

If one is to go back to a founding figure, the PAEC considered the acquisition of nuclear technology capable of conversion to weapons technology as early as 1955, with the help of President Eisenhower’s Atom’s for Peace Programme.

The foundation of any nuclear weapons programme is the production of the special nuclear materials required for weapons – plutonium or highly enriched uranium for a basic programme for producing fission weapons. Without these materials no weapons can be made. The initial direction taken by Pakistan was to pursue the use of plutonium.

The Plutonium route to the bomb

A.Q. Khan always wanted Pakistan to work only on Uranium weapon as compared to Plutonium because (he thought and tried to convince Gen Zia) Plutonium route involved highly complex and sophisticated procedures and processes but PAEC knew better. Plutonium route and all the related activities to establish infrastructure (for eventual bomb) continued in full swing against AQ Khan desire. A.Q. Khan sought to undermine Munir Khan by opposing the plutonium route because Munir was a plutonium expert, having spent 14 years as Head of Reactor Engineering at the IAEA before his joining PAEC in 1972, where PAEC under Munir Khan not only initiated the Kahuta Enrichment project before AQK, but continued to give crucial technical support.

Contrary to popular perception, Pakistan did not forego the plutonium route to the bomb, and pursued it along with the uranium route. Whether by intention to prepare a “nuclear option” or not, decisions made in the 1960s already provided a valuable basis for establishing a weapons programme. In 1971 the Canadian General Electric Co. completed a 137 MW (electrical) CANDU power reactor for the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP), which went critical in August 1971 and inaugurated by the man who would go on to become the architect of Nuclear Pakistan, the new Chairman, PAEC, Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan. It began commercial operation in October 1972. CGEC also provided a small heavy water production facility. These facilities had been contracted for in the mid-60s, thus predating Bhutto’s drive for nuclear weapon capability, but perhaps influenced by him in a ministerial capacity. The technology for KANUPP was the same natural uranium/heavy water technology used in the Indian Cirus and later Dhruva reactors used by India for producing weapons plutonium. The facilities were under IAEA safeguards, and have remained so; nonetheless it was the initial intent of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme to use plutonium from this reactor as the key ingredient in their nuclear arsenal. But to do that Pakistan required a means of separating plutonium from spent fuel. Some advance preparation had occurred here also. In the late 1960s Pakistan had contracted with both British Nuclear Fuels Limited and Belgonucléaire to prepare studies and designs for pilot plutonium separation facilities. The BNFL design, capable of separating up 360 g of fuel a year. The plan for this plant was completed by 1971.

The centrepiece of the PAEC weapon’s programme at this time was the effort to acquire a reprocessing plant to separate plutonium from the fuel of KANUPP. The first step after Multan was to build a pilot reprocessing facility called the “New Labs” at PINSTECH, which was completed by 1981, and work on the KHUSHAB Plutonium production reactor started in the 1980s and it became operational in the 1990s. This facility (New Labs) was a larger and more ambitious project than the original BNFL plan. Belgonucléaire and the French corporation Saint-Gobain Techniques Nouvelles (SGN) built it in the early 70s.

The pilot plant was followed by a contract signed with SGN in March 1973 to prepare the basic design for a large-scale reprocessing plant, one with a capacity of 100 tons of fuel per year, considerably more than KANUPP would generate. SGN was the world’s chief exporter of reprocessing technology and had previously built military plutonium facilities for France, the secret plutonium plant at Dimona in Israel, and contracted to provide similar plants to Taiwan, South Korea, and (later) Iraq. The Chashma plant, as it was known, would have the capability to produce 200 kg of weapons grade plutonium a year, if sufficient fuel were available to feed it. It would have provided Pakistan with the ability to “break safeguards” and quickly process accumulated fuel from KANUPP when it decided to openly declare itself a nuclear-armed state. One for the final detailed design and construction on October 18, 1974 followed the initial design contract. The original contract for this project did not include significant safeguards to discourage diversion of the separated plutonium, or controls on the technology

India’s first nuclear test, known variously as “Smiling Buddha”, the PNE (for “Peaceful Nuclear Explosive”), and most recently Pokhran-I, occurred on May 18 , 1974. It provided an additional stimulus to the Pakistani weapons programme. Bhutto increased the funding for the programme after the Indian test, but since arrangements to secure lavish funding had been underway for more than a year this would have occurred anyway. One consequence of the test was ironically to hamper Pakistan’s programme as the test sharply escalated international attention to proliferation and led to increased restrictions on nuclear exports to all nations, not just India.

The French government began to show increased concern about the Chashma plant during 1976. A safeguards agreement for France brought the plant before the IAEA in February 1976, which was approved on March 18 and signed by Pakistan. This at least ensured that the plant would have monitoring so that diversion to military purposes could be made with impunity. Despite Bhutto’s overthrow in 1977 by General Zia, the latter continued the project unabated, and continued to press the French to fulfil the Chashma contract. But France had begun gradually turning against the reprocessing plant. In late 1977 the French proposed to Pakistan to alter the design of the plant so that it would produce a mixture of uranium and plutonium rather pure plutonium. This modification would not affect the plant’s suitability for its declared purpose – producing mixed oxide fuel for power reactors – but would prevent its direct use for producing plutonium for weapons. Pakistan refused to accept the modification. But by that time Pakistan had received 95 percent of the detailed plans for the plant by SGN, and was thus in a position to secure components and build the plant itself, which it would later at KHUSHAB.

The Uranium Route to the Bomb: PAEC’s role in Uranium Enrichment

Pakistan from the outset of the Multan conference was exploring both the Plutonium and Uranium routes to the bomb. During 1974-76, uranium enrichment was probably seen as a backup or at most a co-equal programme for fissile material production. Having two different technologies for production would make Pakistan more resistant to efforts to restrain its programme, and producing both U-235 and plutonium would give Pakistan greater flexibility in weapon design. Dr. Bashiruddin Mahmud was only one of dozens of scientists and engineers (besides) AQ Khan who were working in Europe, Canada and the US in late sixties and early seventies that later became “Consortium Companies” to supply enriched uranium to European nuclear power plants. PAEC brought back dozens of scientists from Belgium to start this programme under Dr Bashiruddin long before

AQ Khan came on board. 

Moreover, the PAEC was already considering the centrifuge problem, and there was one experiment in Lahore in the early 1970s involving centrifuges. Two pilot centrifuge plants were set up in Golra and Sihala before the actual uranium enrichment facility was established at Kahuta. Munir Ahmad Khan completed the site selection for the Kahuta enrichment plant, initial procurement of vital equipment, construction of its civil works, and recruitment of staff for it by 1976. The Kahuta Enrichment Project was called Project-706 of the PAEC, and as with the plutonium programme, it was under the overall control and supervision of Chairman Munir Khan. A.Q. Khan came to Pakistan and produced gas centrifuge designs and drawings from URENCO. He initially worked under Project Director Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmud. Much of the buying for Kahuta of necessary materials and equipment before and after A.Q. Khan’s arrival was done by a brilliant PAEC physicist-turned diplomat, S.A. Butt, who was also looking after the plutonium programmes’ requirements. The best PAEC scientists and engineers staffed Kahuta. It must be remembered that the Plutonium contract with France had not been cancelled by the French government when the Enrichment Plant was being set up at Kahuta.

When Canada in 1976 suspended the supply of heavy water fuel and spare parts for KANUPP, the PAEC underMunir Khan took up the challenge and using indigenous resources produced the feed for KANUPP. As a result the Muslim World’s first nuclear reactor was not closed even for a single day for want of spare parts, fuel, and heavy water.

The technology Qadeer brought would have eventually been acquired. The work had been started by Bashir-ud-din on Nuclear Fuel cycle to make fuel for KANUPP and future nuclear plants two years prior to Qadeer’s arrival in Pakistan. Dr. A.Q. Khan did not bring a magic wand from URENCO but still it was a vital link to the bomb. UnderMunir Ahmed Khan, PAEC started an ambitious programme to master the technology of complete nuclear fuel cycle in which “ Heavy Water” was one of the most important components. Heavy Water which was so (prohibitively) expensive which Canada was charging Pakistan $27/lb (in early/mid-seventies), Pakistan’s only nuclear power plant would die and our whole nuclear programme would come crashing in late 1970. Qadeer’s contribution cannot be denied but should not be overblown. Centrifuge essentially a highly specialized mechanical component was a link in the long chain of enrichment technology. As Qadeer and his team stumbled on many occasions, he received vital technical support from PINSTECH and PAEC infrastructure and scientists. Dr N Ikram out of many (Punjab University, Institute Of Solid State Physics) was a rare specialist in this field and international authority who came to his rescue.

Qadeer’s blueprints were based on first generation enrichment technology originally developed by the URENCO in late sixties and early seventies whose SWU (unit of the measurement to separate U-238 and U-235 in natural uranium in order to create final product that is richer in U-235 (atoms) was so low that thousands of centrifuge machines would have to be deployed for thousands of hours at performance levels much inferior to then installed centrifuges at URENCO. PAEC (under Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan) challenged its economic viability and presented a programme that will deploy the most efficient technology by setting up an infrastructure for advanced machine design for the next generation centrifuges and in the two decades that followed spent more than $3 billion on centrifuge technology and its support infrastructure. PAEC used “proven technology” with heavy emphasis on R&D (not copy or stealing as US and western media says) with much higher SWU while reducing costs and improving efficiency through the use of state-of-the-art materials, control systems and manufacturing processes.

By late 90s, KRL had conducted centrifuge development work costing hundreds of millions of dollars. PAEC enabled KRL to take advantage of commercial advances in construction materials (thanks to PAEC/PINSTECH’s Scientists) and advanced manufacturing methods to develop a centrifuge machines that achieved several times SWU performance previously demonstrated by early KRL machines, but at substantially reduced cost. Today PAEC has a workhorse technology that capably serves Pakistan defence needs and since New Labs setup, much of the fuel needs of the future nuclear plants in Pakistan.

People might ask the significance of higher SWU? Natural uranium, in the form of uranium hexafluoride (natural UF6), is fed into an enrichment process. If (for example), you begin with 50 kilograms of natural uranium, it takes about 30 SWU to produce 5 kilograms of uranium enriched in U-235 to 4. -5%. It takes on the order of (roughly) 100,000 SWU of enriched uranium to fuel a typical 137 megawatt (MW) commercial nuclear reactor for a year. A 137 MW (KANUPP) plant can supply the electricity needs for a city of about 500,000 in a country like Pakistan.

Moreover, the technology brought by A.Q. Khan was based on the URENCO designs of gas centrifuges for enriching uranium to weapon grade, also known as Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU). But again, A.Q. Khan’s uranium enrichment was not independent of PAEC, even after having acquired total control and autonomy for KRL. In order to enrich uranium to weapon grade, he needed the crucial Hexafluoride gas, known as UF-6. Concurrent to the plutonium programme and the setting up of Project-706, the PAEC was also setting up a plant to produce Uranium hexafluoride, which is a crucial ingredient for enriching uranium. Here is how UF6 produced and supplied by PAEC to KRL is critical to Enriching Uranium through gas centrifuges and it underlines the importance of this very important ‘step’ in a series of interconnected steps that lead to a bomb. KRL depends on PAEC for Enriching Uranium as is illustrated here. KRL’s role in centrifuges and vacuum technology and material is not being denied here, but PAEC’s role is highlighted which is unknown and unacknowledged and unsung and all praise only goes to A.Q. Khan.

The PAEC at its HEX PLANT produces Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6). Here the natural uranium ore concentrate is sent to a conversion plant where it is chemically processed into Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6). At ambient temperature, UF6 is a solid with a low residual vapour pressure. It is then handed over to KRL.

At KRL enrichment plant, a centrifuge comprises an evacuated (vacuum) casing containing a cylindrical rotor, which rotates at very high speeds, in an almost friction free environment. The Uranium is fed into the rotor as gaseous Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) where it takes up the rotational motion. The centrifugal forces push the heavier U-238 closer to the wall of the rotor than the lighter U-235. The gas closer to the wall becomes depleted in U-235 whereas the gas nearer the rotor axis is enriched in U-235.

The gas flow is produced by a temperature gradient over the length of the centrifuge. UF6 depleted in U-235 flows upwards adjacent to the rotor wall, whilst UF6 enriched in U-235 flows downwards close to the axis. The two gas streams are removed through small pipes.

The enrichment effect of a single centrifuge is small, so centrifuge pumps are linked in-groups known as cascades. Passing through the successive centrifuges of cascades, the U-235 is gradually enriched to the required percentage – usually between 3 and 5% and the depleted uranium is reduced to 0.2 to 0.3% U-235. Enrichment achieved to 5% is non-weapon grade low enriched uranium used in nuclear power plants whereas HEU weapon grade is over 95%.

So Enriching Uranium does not start or end completely at KRL after which the enriched uranium is manufactured into a bomb, which involves very critical steps of developing the bomb design, implosion techniques, triggering mechanism etc. The work on the bomb itself had begun in earnest in the early 1970s by PAEC in a meeting called by Chairman Munir Khan, and attended by Dr. Ishfaq and other senior scientists at about the same time that the Indians exploded their Smiling Buddha. The Hex Plant was built by PAEC under Munir Khan’s Chairmanship and it confirms the fact that this plant was built for providing UF6 to KRL, which was Project 706 of PAEC, developed under Bashiruddin Mahmud, before A.Q. Khan came.

There is no doubt that Munir Ahmad Khan was a true visionary, architect of Pakistan’s uranium enrichment and plutonium programmes and way ahead of his time at PAEC or PINSTECH. He believed and worked tirelessly in building infrastructure that would fabricate nuclear fuel for Pakistan’s nuclear plants and would be a springboard for Qadeer’s fame and notoriety. Without getting hands around fuel cycle’s first 3 crucial steps – 1) mining (uranium ore mining from mines), 2) milling (uranium ore into yellow cake), 3) conversion (yellow cake into hexafluoride) enrichment would be impossible for which PAEC laid solid ground work very early on. Enrichment, a step in increasing the concentration of U-235 isotopes from its natural level (0.5-.7%) to 5% level (fuel used in nuclear plants) was started by Bashiruddin Mahmud, under Munir Khan’s directions. Dr. Bashiruddin did a complete feasibility of the project as early as 1974. Bashirudin was real enrichment (nuclear) expert not a metallurgist. These are two very different disciplines that should not be confused with each other.

Fuel fabrication (the 4th step) – the process of enriched uranium into uranium dioxide, sealing it into metal fuel rods and bundling into fuel assembly, and the last step – fuel fabrication (fuel into nuclear plants where U-235 starts fission producing heat and running the turbine etc) for power plants was again the work of PAEC.

Technically speaking, KRL never built an atomic device for Pakistan but it did build lots of centrifuges, which is purely a mechanical device. PAEC provided technical assistance and guidance in all-important areas of enrichment (and much more) to KRL, as centrifuge was the “vehicle” to the enrichment process. Much of the KRL time (as an organization) was spent designing, developing centrifuges, identifying and resolving the most difficult cascading and other problems to the very end of the programme. From the beginning, more than 75% of KRL scientists and engineers were from PAEC, although many more with rare expertise were recruited from a diverse pool of Pakistani scientists and engineers working in the US and Europe. PAEC played an important role from the very beginning, and thus their know-how became increasingly important in the overall programme. Without PAEC involvement, KRL abilities could not have grown beyond an advanced machine design shop.

PAEC knew how to make nuclear fuel for civil applications before KRL was established. Without PAEC /PINSTECH active guidance and participation, KRL centrifuges (in all likelihood) could only have produced low-enriched uranium, not the highly enriched material needed for an atomic weapons. Simply describing, production of low enriched to highly enriched Uranium is not a “linear” process, which means that if you can produce low enrich uranium, you cannot or may not (readily) produce HEU.

After 30 years of research into the uranium enrichment, Pakistan is now one of the 12 major players in the world that has mastered gas centrifuge technology. This technology with its dozens if not hundreds of spin-off hold the key to the security of Pakistan, future nuclear energy and fuel requirements. People would be surprised to know that laser enrichment programme in the US and Europe and Israel recently hit a dead end. The Indian Atomic Energy Commission and BARC (BARK) have fresh proposals to revive the development of the gas centrifuge technology, which never got off the ground in the first place, whereas Pakistan had a continuous and on-going development programme for three decades. We now have latest generation of machines in operation (Pakistan’s sixth generation), which is as good as if not better than any European machine. The strategy and risks behind Pakistan development programme were too many and what PAEC did no organization in the world would have done it in view of the resources allocated and severe restrictions to import dual use technology.

Hence, it is clear that the Pakistani enrichment development was begun in 1974 by Chairman PAEC, Munir Ahmad Khan, under several covert programmes and one based (URENCO early model) on the concept of a lightweight rotor operating on pin bearings and magnetic top bearings got the most publicity in the west. Other parallel programmes Pakistan started were based on better design parametres to achieve super-critical operating speed that would provide PAEC with wide base of advanced engineering (machine design) experience on which they helped KRL develop future generation of centrifuges. PAEC policy was to run their programmes as economically as possible rather than just focusing on the technical benefits. This approach caused a major friction with KRL but forced KRL to shift its strategy from smuggling machines (not a reliable option) to R&D. KRL envisioned that future generations of machines would be developed from reverse engineering or they would make thousands of first generation machine, clearly a Russian approach wasting precious resources with low chances of success. KRL eventually was forced to undertake a long-term programme to develop significantly faster centrifuges through R&D under PAEC/PINSTECH guidance. While PAEC programmes were based much more on a series of “smaller projects” aimed at improving specific aspects of the current centrifuge either by manufacturing improvements to reduce the cost of manufacture or by taking advantage of improvements in materials. In either case, all PAEC projects were evaluated from an economic point of view to ensure that lifetime cost improvements actually paid back the money committed to undertake the research and from a technical point of view to ensure that improvements were introduced as early as possible within the manufacturing phase as part of future generation. PAEC was always in favour of step by step approach in developing each centrifuge generation not just importing clandestinely some models and then reverse engineered them so they set out the development programme in three stages 1) R&D 2) Pilot and 3) Production. First step included design studies, testing of new materials, manufacture and very high stress testing of a small number of components and then building typically 20 or 30 centrifuges. The pilot phase was employed to prove that the centrifuges would operate successfully long term under all design parameters.

Preparing to Build the Bomb

Pakistani work on weapon design began even before the start of work on uranium enrichment, under the auspices of the PAEC. Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan, Chairman PAEC called a meeting, in March, 1974, to initiate work on an atomic bomb. Among those attending the meeting were Hafeez Qureshi, head of the Radiation and Isotope Applications Division (RIAD) at PINSTECH (later to become Member Technical, PAEC), Dr. Abdus Salam, then Adviser for Science and Technology to the Government of Pakistan and Dr. Riaz-ud-Din, Member (Technical), PAEC. The PAEC Chairman informed Qureshi that he was to work on a project of national importance with another expert, Dr. Zaman Sheikh, then working with the Defence Science and Technology Organization (DESTO). The word “bomb” was never used in the meeting but Qureshi exactly understood the objective. Their task would be to develop the design of a weapon implosion system. The project would be located at Wah, appropriately next to the Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF), in the North West Frontier Province and conveniently close to Islamabad.

The work at Wah began under the undescriptive codename Research and Qureshi, Zaman and their team of engineers and scientists came to be known as “The Wah Group”. Initial work was limited to research and development of the explosive lenses to be used in the nuclear device. This expanded, however to include chemical, mechanical and precision engineering of the system and the triggering mechanisms. It procured equipment where it could and developed its own technology where restrictions prevented the purchase of equipment.

The first preparations for eventual nuclear tests also started early – in 1976. Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad, and Member (Technical) and Dr. Samar Mubarak of the PAEC were dispatched to Balochistan to conduct helicopter reconnaissance of potential test sites with the assistance of the army 5 Corps located at Quetta. Over a span of three days, the PAEC scientists made several reconnaissance tours of the area between Turbat, Awaran and Khuzdar in the south and Naukundi-Kharan in the east.

The PAEC requirement was for a mountain with a completely dry interior capable of withstanding an internal 20 kt nuclear explosion. A likely site was found in the form of a several hundred-metre tall granite mountain Koh Kambaran in the Ras Koh range (also referred to as the Ras Koh Hills). The Ras Koh in the Chagai Division of Balochistan rise at their highest point to 3009 metres. After a one-year survey of the site, completed in 1977, plans were finalized for driving a horizontal tunnel under Koh Kambaran for a future test. (Brig. Muhammad Sarfraz, who had provided support to the PAEC survey team, was tasked by (now) President Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 with creating and leading the Special Development Works (SDW), which was entrusted, with the task of preparing the nuclear test sites. The SDW was formally subordinate to the PAEC but directly reported to the Chief of the Army Staff. Meetings between SDW and PAEC officials and Zia-ul-Haq led to the decision to prepare a second site for a horizontal shaft. The site selected was located at Kharan, in a desert valley between the Ras Koh Hills to the north and Siahan Range to the south. Subsequently, the Chagai-Ras Koh-Kharan areas became restricted entry zones and were closed to the public.

The Wah Group had a weapon design – an implosion system using the powerful but sensitive HMX as the principal explosive – ready for testing in 1983. The first “cold test” of a weapon (i.e. a test of the implosion using inert natural uranium instead of highly enriched uranium) took place on March 11, 1983 under the leadership of Dr. Ishfaq Ahmed of the PAEC. This test was conducted in tunnels bored in the Kirana Hills near Sargodha, home of the Pakistan Air Force’s main air base and the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD).

The Kirana Hills test tunnels were reportedly bored by the SDW after the Chagai nuclear test sites, i.e. sometime between 1979 and 1983. As in Chagai, the tunnels had been sealed after construction to await tests. As Prior to the cold tests, an advance team opened and cleaned the tunnels.

After clearing the tunnels, a PAEC diagnostic team headed by Dr. Mubarakmand arrived on the scene with trailers fitted with computers and diagnostic equipment. This was followed by the arrival of the Wah Group with the nuclear device, in sub-assembly form. This was assembled and then placed inside the tunnel. A monitoring system was set up with around 20 cables linking various parts of the device with oscillators in diagnostic vans parked near the Kirana Hills.

One of the principal objectives of the test was to determine whether the neutron initiator (probably a polonium beryllium design similar to those used in the first US, USSR, UK, and Indian bombs) to reliably start a fission chain reaction in the real bomb. However, when the button was pushed, most of the wires connecting the device to the oscilloscopes were severed due to errors committed in the preparation of the cables. At first, it was thought that the device had malfunctioned but closer scrutiny of two of the oscilloscopes confirmed that the neutrons had indeed been produced. A second cold test was undertaken soon afterwards which was witnessed by Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Lt. Gen. K.M. Arif and Munir Ahmed Khan.

Between 1983 and 1990, the Wah Group developed an air deliverable bomb and conducted more than 24 cold tests of nuclear devices with the help of mobile diagnostic equipment. These tests were carried out in 24 tunnels measuring 100-150 feet (30-50 m) in length which were bored inside the Kirana Hills. Later due to excessive US intelligence and satellite attention on the Kirana Hills site, it was abandoned and the cold test facility was shifted to the Kala-Chitta Range. The bomb was small enough to be carried under the wing of a fighter/bomber such as the F-16 which Pakistan had obtained from the US. The Wah Group worked alongside the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to evolve and perfect delivery techniques of the nuclear bomb using combat aircraft including “conventional freefall”, “loft bombing”, “toss bombing” and “low-level laydown” attack techniques, the latter requiring a sophisticated high speed parachute system. Today, the PAF has perfected all four techniques of nuclear weapons delivery using F-16, Mirage-V and A-5 combat aircraft.

Munir Ahmad Khan and PAEC’s other achievements

Therefore, we can say that the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, under the Chairman Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan remained in-charge of the overall bomb programme, of all the numerous difficult steps, before and after uranium enrichment, and remained closely linked with uranium enrichment itself. They built and exploded the device. There is no getting around this fact. Nor did Pakistan forego the plutonium route, the choice of every other country with nuclear weapons because plutonium bombs are so much more powerful. We know this because of the recent disclosures about the Khushab plutonium production reactor. This was driven during Munir Khan’s 19-year tenure. All members (Technical), including Dr. Hafeez Qureshi of PINSTECH, Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad (a theoretical physicist), Dr. Samar Mubarikmand (an experimental physicist) and others involved in critical technologies and projects like Dr. N.A. Javed, Dr. Abdul Majid (who designed the Khushab plutonium production reactor beginning in the 1980s, and an engineering accomplishment of greater significance for Pakistan than KRL), Dr. Bashiruddin Mahmud, the Project Director of ERL/KRL at its inception, and all Members (Nuclear Power), worked as a team, and gave ultimate security to Pakistan.

The PAEC under Munir Ahmad Khan not only went on to build the first generation of nuclear weapons in the 1980s, but also built the Chagai tunnels for nuclear tests, which were ready by early 1980s, and also the plant for the production of uranium hexafluoride gas, the crucial raw material from which enriched uranium is made. He also upgraded the research reactor at Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) and laid the groundwork for the 300MW nuclear power plant at Chashma, which has since been completed and commissioned.

Among the first assignments that Munir undertook was the setting of the Centre for Nuclear Studies, later to become PIEAS (Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences), which has produced over two thousand trained nuclear scientists and engineers during the last over quarter of a century.

In addition a dozen nuclear medical centres and several atomic agricultural centres were set up. Specialized nuclear training centres were established at home and a large number of scientists and engineers were sent abroad for training to create a vast reservoir of trained manpower, the backbone of a self-sustaining nuclear programme.

Munir Khan had some powerful detractors too who sought to undermine him. A bizarre incident of how he was undermined is the publication in early 80’s of a book “Islamic Bomb” by some foreign publisher. It detailed Pakistan’s clandestine efforts to make the bomb and made several mentions of Munir Ahmad Khan and also of A Q Khan highlighting their contributions in the nuclear field.

But when Munir Khan’s team conducted cold nuclear tests of its device in 1983, a new version of Islamic Bomb was clandestinely published and widely distributed gratis among army generals, bureaucrats, government leaders and leading scientists. In the doctored version all positive references to Munir Khan were deleted and replaced with negative and derogatory comments. For instance a reference to Munir Khan as ‘a patriot and a man who would do anything and everything to bring atomic power and atomic weapons to his homeland’, in the original edition was doctored to read “Mr. Munir Khan is not a patriot, would do anything to keep atomic weapons away from Pakistan.”

At another place the original version read, “Yet he (Munir Khan) is still the man in charge of the bomb project”. It was changed in the doctored edition to read as “Yet he (Munir Khan) is still the man in charge of the reprocessing project”. The change made from the ‘bomb project’ to the ‘reprocessing project’ was striking as it sought to robMunir Khan and his associates of any credit for the bomb project. The authors subsequently disowned the pirated version. It was all done at the behest of AQK, as Munir and his team had begun to get credit after the first cold tests conducted by PAEC in 1983.

Munir Khan’s achievements must be seen in the backdrop of the anti-nuclear international environment of 70’s and 80’s when the United States, Canada and European countries passed domestic legislation to not only place restrictions on transfer of technology but even to renegotiate settled contracts.

He refrained from advertising the Commission’s achievements. Some of his colleagues thought the low profile policy were a mistake. They often complained that it had only encouraged others to hijack what actually they had performed. But Munir Ahmad Khan believed that bravado and brandishing nuclear capability would heighten negative international perceptions about Pakistan and make the objectives difficult to achieve.

The truth is that Munir Khan was very modest, and shied away from the counter-productive boasting of his rivals. He saw Pakistan’s strength as lying in more than having a bomb, equally dependent on a secure economic and political future and non-isolation in the world. Munir Khan’s role in developing the nuclear programme of Pakistan was in many ways akin to that of Homi Bhabha in India. Homi Bhabha had struck a synthesis with the political leadership soon after independence in 1947 and secured political commitment for his country’s nuclear programme. Munir Khan achieved this synthesis with the political leadership in 1972 when he was picked up for the job in a conference of the country’s scientists at Multan. Since then the country’s nuclear programme has enjoyed the bipartisan political support. And like Bhabha, Munir Khan also believed that a viable nuclear programme was not possible without a vast base of trained manpower and the indigenous development of some components, which were vital for the programme.

To provide a solid base of trained manpower he set up the Centre for Nuclear Studies, which has now become a University (PIEAS), to train young nuclear scientists and engineers. By now the Centre has produced over 2,000 highly trained and qualified experts in various nuclear disciplines. In the early stages he fought hard with the bureaucracy and sent hundreds of scientists and engineers to Europe and America for training.

It is this trained manpower which has given Pakistan mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle ranging from uranium exploration and mining, fuel fabrication, making of hexafluoride gas for feeding the enrichment plant and also enriching uranium itself. And as is widely known the devices, which were tested in Chagai in May last, were made by the trainees of these training centres the foundations of which were laid by Munir Ahmad Khan. He accomplished all this because of his successful style of work, whereby he was obsessed with secrecy, whereas AQK regularly gave fat cheques to journalists, who wrote books and articles eulogizing AQK at the expense of PAEC and Munir Khan. Munir Khan was a man who was obsessed with secrecy, which sometimes bordered on the paranoia, and he kept a very low profile. He believed that scientists working for the nuclear programme must maintain a distance from journalists and the public, due to the sensitivity of their job, and they had no business to issue any political statements. That would invite unnecessary and sometimes harmful attention from the enemies of the programme and endanger the security of the country.

Today PAEC scientists and engineers can develop a new weapon design for a nuclear device every three months in a year. The National Development Complex was initiated by Munir Ahmad Khan in the beginning of the 1990s, and the last years of his Chairmanship as a project of PAEC of vital national significance under Dr. Samar Mubarik Mand, who had been the part of the team which conducted the cold test in 1983, and subsequently the leader of the team which conducted the hot tests in 1998. The PAEC had conducted almost 24 cold tests from 1983 onwards till 1998, wherein they improved on the basic nuclear weapon design in the following cold tests. The KRL under Dr. A.Q. Khan was unable to come up with a credible design, and that is why PAEC’s bomb was used for testing in 1998 and in all the cold tests carried out by PAEC. PAEC scientists and engineers had gained vast experience in nuclear weapon development and bomb testing, which it was engaged in for over 2 decades. KRL never had anything to do with the actual development of the weapon itself, and PAEC’s success in making a viable bomb design and repeatedly testing various designs clearly speaks for the technical prowess of the PAEC and the sagacity of its leadership. The making of nuclear weapons is a more challenging task than enriching uranium, as it involves a host of complicated processes and technologies including the triggering mechanism, design, implosion hydrodynamics and technologies, etc. which the PAEC conducted very successfully. Chairman PAEC Munir Ahmad Khan, General K.M. Arif and Ghulam Ishaq Khan witnessed the first cold test of 1983. At the time of the 1998 tests, Dr. A.Q. Khan was invited to the test site “ to witness what a nuclear explosion looks like” in the words of Dr. Samar, and AQK left soon there after, and he arrived at the test site some 15 minutes before the explosions.

The greatest contribution that Munir Khan made to the making of nuclear Pakistan is that he made its nuclear programme self-sustaining and independent of himself. The infrastructure which he helped build and the reservoir of trained manpower which he gave, ensured the continuity of the programme after his retirement and is a guarantee that it will continue even after his death. This is unlike many of the great doers who claim sole monopoly over achievement, which essentially is collective.

Scientific journals in US and Europe recently reporting US companies having developed centrifuge machines that have achieved more than 300 SWU (Separative Work Units) per year, used in the gas centrifuge method for enriching uranium to weapon grade. This was possible because of advances in materials science and metallurgy etc; In Pakistan at GIKI and PAEC/PINSTECH, we now have material science and metallurgy departments offering PhD in material sciences. PINSTECH Nuclear Chemistry department offers BS/MS degrees specializing in heavy water chemistry. The worst US (and Indian/Israeli) fear is that if Pakistan has acquired this level of performance and yields from their machines then they may have ten times more highly enriched uranium to assemble 200 weapons. Adding Pakistan’s plutonium capability from Khushab reactor to weaponize, it has brought Pakistan in league with Israel and China in her ability to miniaturize nuclear weapon small enough for tactical and battlefields use. (Plutonium bombs are greater in yield, but smaller in size and plutonium is used to make advanced compact warheads that can easily be fitted onto aircraft and missiles). To add more fear to US/Indian nightmare if Pakistan has produced or (by all accounts Pakistan is producing enough) tritium then Pakistan have nuclear weapons whose yield could easily be increased between 100-180 Kiloton. Now Pakistan needs to achieve TRIAD capability to achieve complete surprise.

Constantly underestimating and trying to belittle Pakistan’s ability to progressively enrich uranium and develop an advanced Plutonium programme despite the west’s sanctions and the French backstabbing of the Reprocessing contract in the face of acute resource constraints, the West, and the people of Pakistan simply are unaware of the magnitude of capabilities of PAEC/PINSTECH/NDC/KRL and our scientists and engineers. Munir Ahmad Khan’s 19 years in the PAEC saw the initiation, blossoming and development of these capabilities.

PAEC and Nuclear Power Plants

Pakistan and China initially agreed (back in 1980s) to commission at least 2 plants at the same site (CHASMA) with common auxiliary services feeding both plants as this is normal practice in the US and Europe. Common auxiliary facilities save a country lots of money. All engineering/design work for both plants was done simultaneously as hundreds of PAEC/PINSTECH engineers worked in China (at Chinese equivalent of US Oakridge labs and other facilities) but only ONE was started and completed per PAEC requirements because China did not have the experience to sustain such large and highly complex projects. Chinese reactor safety and reliability was another overriding factor for the delay of second plant not what BBC has said. After CHASMA-I was completed, newly established PNRC (Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Commission) stopped PAEC from starting second plant right away as it wanted to monitor the plant for at least 3 years, first year and half for nominal power and rest of the time at full power as this is the most critical phase. Recently, PNRC has given the safety certificate to PAEC and IAEA. The second plant CHASMA-II will be completed in half the time, as the learning curve would be minimum and many of the 1st plant design anomalies would be fixed. Now I have heard from very reliable source that PAEC plan to build two 500-MW plants somewhere upstream of Indus River in next 7-10 years and another large (300MW) plutonium reactor and upgrading of Khushab reactor to unknown capacity. Chinese are also convinced that Pakistan (PAEC) has the engineering know-how and the critical mass of manpower to design turbines, components of large capacity pumps, nuclear grade pipes/tubings as well as backup control systems for the reactor, so the opportunities for Pakistan are endless.

As stated above, another PAEC scintillating achievement is Chashma Nuclear Power Plant (CHASNUPP) reactor in which PAEC engineers developed nuclear fuel used. This was first plant where PAEC took part as consultant and designer. This was light water reactor designed to generate 300 MW of electricity using 15 tonnes of enriched uranium annually. The plant uses cooling water from the Chashma-Jhelum link canal and discharges it into the Indus similar to Chinese nuclear power station at Qinshan. As Chinese experience in the design of nuclear power stations for commercial purposes was limited, PAEC expertise came handy in procuring many of the components such as the giant steel pressure vessel, coolant pumps. The computerized control systems were designed in China with PAEC full participation specifications. Pakistan had also gained extensive experience in the safety systems running Karachi plant, so Chinese learnt a lot from Pakistan’s experience and advised the Chinese in designing safety right from the scratch. PAEC designed and commissioned another reactor with a capacity of 72 MW at Joharabad in the Khushab district in Punjab. This is an experimental reactor for the production of isotopes and heavy water required for its operation is manufactured in Pakistan. This reactor is not under IAEA safeguards. The designing of the project started in 1985 under the supervision of Bashiruddin Mahmood, a Canadian-European-trained, who was also in charge of starting the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant before AQK came from Holland. Another scientist instrumental in the design of the Khushab reactor, was the (late) Afzal Haq Rajput. Khushab produces weapons-grade Plutonium to make miniaturized nuclear warheads. Whatever Khushab’s activity and operational parameters it cannot be placed under the IAEA safeguards on the ground that it was a 100 per cent indigenous project. In 1996 N.A.Javed, a PAEC scientist and a heavy water expert, was decorated (Sitara-i-Imtiaz) for developing an indigenous facility for heavy water production, thereby freeing Pakistan from dependence on Canadian and Chinese supplies. There is one very important point to note that Pakistan even if it wanted, could not buy as much heavy water because our friend and master (US) suspected over-supplying heavy water to KANUPP would be diverted to Khushab.


From the above discussion, and in the light of the recent nuclear proliferation scandal involving Dr. A.Q. Khan, certain conclusions can be drawn. Because of the covert 1972-98 period, Qadeer was able to parley his position into unprecedented autonomy (financial, administrative and security, as Musharraf described it). Munir Ahmad Khan and PAEC followed the path of silently pursuing the nuclear goal for Pakistan in line with the country’s stated policy of nuclear ambiguity, and refused to acknowledge or advertise that they were developing a nuclear weapons programme, and insisted, along with the government, that Pakistan’s nuclear programme was strictly for peaceful purposes. Second, because it was indeed a covert period, Qadeer was encouraged to pose as the Father of the Bomb, even though he was responsible for just one of 24 steps, each crucial to making nuclear weapons. Those responsible for the other 23 steps all worked under the Member (Technical) of the PAEC, who in turn reported to its Chairman. However, Qadeer was allowed to head his own set up, smaller than the PAEC, but dealing with the President directly and equal in status to the PAEC Chairman. Dr. Samar has said it on record that it was unthinkable for any scientist or engineer working in PAEC to indulge in proliferation or leakage of any materials or information or expertise, for money or cheap popularity, as they considered their work as a sacred trust, and scientists of one department would never divulge any unnecessary information to any other person in another department, and only that information was told to the people involved in various projects, as was required for their work. On the other hand, Qadeer also demanded and got much more autonomy. It has been confirmed that the security restrictions on PAEC men, right up to the Chairman, which included surveillance (at times comically intrusive) and phone tapping, were not applied to Qadeer and certain senior colleagues. They went abroad for their own shopping for example. PAEC people were not allowed even to do that, until the intelligence operatives who did that job bought a lot of very expensive junk. However, the PAEC never enjoyed such sweeping autonomy. Perhaps because of that, the only proliferation charges relate to the one (relatively preliminary) step Qadeer was responsible for, and not for the other 23, including the more advanced and crucial steps, for which the PAEC remained responsible.

But history has been falsified, deliberately. Qadeer was used as a decoy to divert attention from the PAEC, where the real work was being done. KRL’s scientists were only a fifth of the PAEC’s, and perhaps KRL was overmanned. However, the myth-makers are stuck with the myth itself, and Qadeer has received adulation and honours. Even though it was clearly exposed in 1998 that his role in the nuclear programme was important but not major, the myth still persists. At the time of the Indian Brasstacks exercises, Dr. A.Q. Khan was picked up by the government to issue a statement that Pakistan had the bomb and would use it against India if its security was endangered. That was the turning point in the sense that from then on, A.Q. Khan began an all out propaganda campaign and successfully cultivated the myth that he was the ‘father’ of the bomb, when in fact, he was made into a famous figure by the West, after he came to Pakistan with his URENCO gas-centrifuge designs. The West made him a villain, and the people, especially the media, and the government, went out of the way to portray him as hero, and at a time when the nation was in dire need of heroes. Our society being so gullible and prone to emotionalism and cult worship, started idolizing him to the extent that he became virtually above the law and could do anything, go anywhere, without fear of any accountability. The PAEC and Munir Khan kept their silence and publicly never admitted that they had anything to do with nuclear weapons, as it was state policy throughout the covert period of 1972-98, never to officially admit that Pakistan was a declared nuclear weapons state. This enabled AQ Khan to claim and get away with what was actually performed by PAEC. In short he stole the whole show from PAEC.

There is one important point to note while examining whether there was state approval of proliferation: only KRL was leaking. If there was state policy, the other 23 groups should have been leaking.

The title of Father of the Bomb could apply at the political level to Bhutto (though the roles of Ayub, Zia and Ishaq must not be ignored), and at the technical level, Munir Ahmad Khan as Chairman, along with his team comprising all Members (Technical and Nuclear Power) share the real credit (not to forget Samar, who was Member Technical at the time of the Chaghai tests, and who was personally responsible for at least one of the 23 steps, every bit as crucial to the bomb’s working as uranium enrichment). Qadeer only leaked what he could (the so-called Libyan blueprints might turn out to be the rival KRL design which could not be constructed). This also validates the fact that the designs that he brought from URENCO were the first generation centrifuges (P1), which could not enrich uranium to weapon grade, and crucial technical input from PAEC enabled AQK to enrich uranium to the HEU level. Had this not been true, the designs and know how leaked to Libya and Iran would have enabled them to build the bomb, but they were unable to do it because numerous other processes and technologies involved in enrichment and the other 23 steps in the long chain to the bomb, were not available to them. Thus, without the selfless commitment, intense patriotic zeal and competent and inspiring leadership of PAEC and its leadership, the nuclear dream could never have been realized.

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan (HI, NI & Bar) remains the only Pakistani who got the Nishan-i-Imtiaz, the highest civil award twice. He also got the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, along with Munir Ahmad Khan, in 1989. AQK got both his NI during President Ishaq’s tenure, and now it has been reported that he had paid Rs. 150 crore to GIK for the latter’s Institute, whereas Munir Khan paid a personal price by remaining unsung. Only Dr. Samar has come out in the spotlight now that Qadeer’s fall from grace and fame, and he was awarded the NI this year. Munir’s predecessor, I.H. Usmani and his successor Ishfaq Ahmad got the NI as well; the former got it posthumously, yet Munir Khan has been denied the NI even though 5 years have passed since his death and in spite of the fact that Munirremained the longest serving PAEC Chairman, and PAEC’s accomplishments during 1972-1991 were all driven and initiated by Munir Ahmad Khan. He was known as the ‘Father’ in PAEC circles, but the nation has been kept in the dark about him, and his image has not been honestly portrayed in the public. In the final analysis, it is always the man at the top who counts the most, and in this respect, the PAEC under Munir Ahmad Khan was the real architect of the nuclear programme, and he along with his team share the real credit as its father. Successful he has been, in his capacity as Chairman, but replaced he shall never be, with or without Nishan-i-Imtiaz. Today PAEC stands tall along with NESCOM/NDC and other strategic organizations involved with the strategic nuclear and missile programmes. Justice requires that the record be set straight for all times to come, and the falsification of history be rectified.

Article published as cover story in Defence Journal (May 2004 issue)