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Court Papers Suggest Pakistani Interest in Thermonuclear Weapon

July 19, 2011


The United States in federal court documents offered its first open suggestion that nuclear-armed Pakistan could be seeking to build a thermonuclear weapon, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported on Sunday (see GSN, July 7).

The Justice Department has charged a Chinese woman living in the United States with illegally exporting high-tech paint coatings that could aid Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development. As the ex-managing director of a Chinese branch of PPG Industries, Xun Wang is accused of shipping the material five years ago in direct disobedience of the Pittsburgh-based company and nonproliferation guidelines issued by the U.S. Commerce Department.

Pakistan holds nuclear arms outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is a known past proliferator of sensitive technology and information through the black market operation once led by scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. As such, the United States has placed a number of restrictions on the trade of sensitive goods with the South Asian nation.

The U.S. Justice Department questions in court filings whether the paint coating shipments could “aid Pakistan in developing thermonuclear weapons,” the first instance in which Washington has formally in an open forum raised the issue of Islamabad’s potential interest in a hydrogen weapon, according to Federation of American Scientists Nuclear Information Project Director Hans Kristensen.

While Pakistan has carried out nuclear tests using uranium-based weapons, it is not definitively known whether the country is recycling used atomic fuel to build a thermonuclear bomb, Kristensen said.

Wang holds permanent residency status in the United States. Before she joined PPG in 2006, the company had exported 290 gallons of the sophisticated coating to Pakistan to be used in building the nation’s second atomic energy reactor at the Chashma complex, court filings state.

Chinese firms assisted Pakistan in constructing the first and second reactors at Chashma.

Two different deliveries totaling 360 gallons of epoxy coatings also were sent to Pakistan while a fourth containing 265 gallons was stopped in Shanghai, according to records.

Pakistan needed extra epoxy to complete covering the inside of the reactor. Otherwise, it would have been forced to conduct the costly work of stripping the PPG coating that had already been applied and replacing it with a different product.

Company officials besides Wang are believed to have tried to assist China’s atomic work in Pakistan, government documents state.

Atomic analysts think it is highly likely that Islamabad constructed a facility close to the second Chashma reactor that could recycle used atomic fuel into weapon-usable plutonium.

Satellite photographs taken in the last decade reveal building taking place at the site of an unfinished Chashma-area plutonium reprocessing facility that had been abandoned in the 1970s, according to a 2007 analysis by Institute for Science and International Security nuclear experts Paul Brannan and David Albright. As recently as 2006, construction vehicles and materials could be viewed at the site and pavement had been laid on roads leading up to the unfinished processing plant.

The ISIS analysts speculated that the plutonium facility could be close to finished and that China could have aided Pakistan in the project. If they are correct, the analysts asserted that used nuclear fuel rods from the first and second Chashma energy reactors “would aid Pakistan in developing thermonuclear weapons as well as increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal.”

Pakistan is widely viewed as having the world’s fastest growing nuclear weapons program.

Brannan said he was taken aback that the findings of his 2007 report were used by the Justice Department in its case against Wang.

“When ISIS warned of this in 2007, the most we got from the U.S. government was silence,” Brannan said in an interview with the newspaper. “I don’t think the U.S. has confronted Pakistan about their plutonium program. This is really controversial. We are already in the middle of a nuclear arms race on the South Asian peninsula.”

The ISIS analyst said he thinks “the real significance of this case is, it shows how easily it is to conduct illicit nuclear trade” (Lou Kilzer, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 17).

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