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Lies about the nukes: Interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy

19 January 2013

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Viewpoint - online issue 134

Hameed Gul and company are professional fear-mongers. They want to terrify Pakistanis into believing that we are under constant siege and thus create a climate where the right-wing ideology of hate and violence can flourish

Edited by physicist and noted intellectual Pervez Hoodbhoy, ‘Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani & Indian Scientists Speak Out’ (Oxford University Press) hit the stalls recently. A collection of essays on the issue of nuclear race in South Asia by eminent Pakistani and Indian scientists, ‘Confronting the Bomb’ brings forth nuclear debate in a manner that bucks the mainstream discourse in both India and Pakistan. In this issue, Viewpoint discusses nuclear issues with book’s editor Pervez Hoodbhoy and two of its contributors, Zia Mian and M.V. Ramana.

Below Viewpoint discusses ‘Confronting the Bomb’ with Pervez Hoodbhoy. Read on:

What motivated you to bring out this book?

Pakistanis and Indians have been told lie after lie about nuclear weapons. National chauvinists and jingoists use them all the time to whip up national enthusiasm but never talk about the catastrophic consequences if things go wrong, or that our two countries have actually become more insecure after going nuclear. I felt that it was time to put the record straight and to get together my various writings, as well as essays of other physicist colleagues, in the form of a book. The aim is strip off the usual jargon and present facts just the way they are, both technical and political.

It seems there is a national consensus on nuclear question. People seek pride in Pakistan’s atomic capability. So is making the bomb really a scientific feat?

It’s not a complete consensus by any means. Still, everyone knows how easy it is to whip up national fervor – even a cricket team will do that. A bomb does even better; look at how millions of Indians and Pakistanis deliriously celebrated after the 1998 tests. Of course, the enthusiasm plummeted soon after that. As for making bombs, it is no longer a big deal. Certainly the first bomb was a great, though terrible, scientific feat. Thereafter it has gotten easier and easier. Poor, starving North Korea is one of the world’s most wretched states but it too has made the bomb. Today bomb-making merely requires putting together fissile materials with ready-made explosives and electronics that are available in the market. The physics of nuclear explosions can be readily taught to graduate students. Making bombs and missiles of the type Pakistan and India possess is routine stuff that needs engineers. High-powered scientists are unnecessary.

A.Q Khan is described in the mainstream discourses as a James Bond kind of scientist who single handedly stole a formula and gifted us the Islamic Bomb. Would you say that A.Q.Khan is some kind of a scientific genius?

Some people in Pakistan believe he is some kind of superman scientist, but others are very puzzled after he came out singing praises for Agha Waqar Ahmad’s fraudulent "water car". Also, his ill-tempered attack upon rival Pakistani nuclear heroes has made people suspicious. Let me correct some misconceptions: first, this man is not a nuclear scientist at all. He is actually a metallurgist and received his Ph.D. degree in that subject from Germany. Our good doctor then worked at a uranium enrichment plant in Belgium and Holland. His genius lies entirely in having correctly recognized that he could secretly whisk away classified information without getting caught and then reverse engineer the centrifuges. He is an excellent manager of large projects and knows how to get people to work together. As a scientist, he is mediocre.

’No country has ever tried to take out another’s nuclear bombs. The consequences of a botched operation can be severe’ [page 84]. This is recurring theme in your essays. Why is the Gul Hameed camp making the noise. Are they ignorant or is it mere a political gimmickry?

Hameed Gul and company are professional fear-mongers. They want to terrify Pakistanis into believing that we are under constant siege and thus create a climate where the right-wing ideology of hate and violence can flourish. They insist that America wants to snatch our nukes. Well, that is certainly true up to a point – if the U.S. could, it would. Few countries in the world trust us with nuclear weapons, especially now that our military is constantly under attack from home-grown terrorists. It is therefore not surprising that the U.S military has contingency plans in case some emergency situation develops in Pakistan. But unless Pakistan chooses to create some extreme provocation, an attack will not happen. I think America’s options are very limited because it does not have accurate information on where the 100+ bombs are hidden. These are fiercely guarded and a full-scale US ground forces invasion would be required to locate and destroy them – an Abbottabad type operation is impossible. Such an invasion would be a declaration of war against a nuclear state. The consequences could be horrendous and perhaps result in the use of nuclear weapons because Pakistan may choose to use them rather than lose them. Even if India is not directly involved and it is the Americans who have invaded, the target of Pakistani nukes could still be India. The Indians would certainly retaliate and destroy Pakistan.

You speak of penetration of Iranian centrifuges by US through the use of Stuxnet virus. Can’t this be done in the case of Pakistan too?

Electronic sabotage of Pakistan’s centrifuges is impossible. At KRL, uranium enrichment has been going on for decades. Short of a physical attack or disruption of supplies, there is probably no other way of stopping more production. The same can be said about the plutonium producing reactors located in Khushab.

"Confronting the Bomb" decries the secrecy regarding nuclear programmes which governments disguise in the name of national interest. Is this secrecy justified? Don’t you think there should be financial transparency at the very least? Tax payers should know how much is being spent on nukes. What about informing citizens about nuclear waste?

Nuclear establishments are always opaque. This is partly justifiable – one does not want hostile states or terrorists peeking inside. But transparency on matters of nuclear waste disposition and reactor incidents is essential because this directly concerns public well-being. Similarly financial opaqueness cannot ever be justified. This is used by states either to hide inefficiencies in the nuclear electricity sector or to push forward secret weapon programs. In Pakistan’s case, one cannot say which one is the stronger reason. In western countries, an aroused public has demanded, and succeeded partially, in pressurizing nuclear authorities into releasing some information. Similarly, the anti-nuclear movement in India has also had some success. But in Pakistan we are told nothing.

Both nuclear test sites in Balochistan are now radioactive and out of bound, we are informed in this book [page 145]. But your book does not explore the questions like climate destruction caused by nuclear tests and nuclear waste. Is it because there is no research on the subject?

Underground nuclear tests do not have climatic consequences. But if there is leakage of fission products into the environment, radiation levels can become dangerous for both man and beast. Unfortunately, it is impossible to say anything about the nuclear environment around Chaghi and Ras-e-koh because radiation is something invisible to our eyes and Pakistani authorities refuse to release any data. One suspects that there is residual radioactivity there, but the extent is not known.

Pakistan helped Iran develop its nuclear programme. However, Saudi Arabia according to your book commands a degree of control over Pakistan. Simultaneously, Saudi-Iranian rivalry is documented. How come Riyadh did not stop Islamabad from helping Tehran?

Pakistan’s help for the Iranian program was pushed forward by Gen. Mirza Aslam Baig’s and his doctrine of "strategic defiance". Of course, A.Q. Khan didn’t need much convincing – he knew he could make a quick buck by selling centrifuges to the Iranians. I suspect that the Pakistanis did not let the Saudis on with this, and Saudi intelligence is pretty much limited to what the Americans choose to tell them. If the Saudis had known, they wouldn’t have allowed the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran.

Latin America is the only continent free of nuclear bombs even when many countries have been subjected to US aggression. Is there a lesson to learn from Latin America in this regard?

The Treaty of Tlatelolco, which is the name given to the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, is the right model for South Asia. Many of Pakistan’s problems, including that of terrorism, will become more solvable if our two countries renounce nuclear weapons. I know that that will not happen any time soon, but at the very least we should agree to stop making more nukes. There are already more than enough to destroy the subcontinent.

The author is a professor of physics and teaches in Lahore(LUMS) and Islamabad (QAU).

P.S.

The above interview from Viewpoint is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use