Indo-Pakistani nuclear war? CANDU!

Alex Roslin
Saturday Night
May 1, 2002

In uncertain times, small things can make all the difference. One December 13, 2001, a wrong turn by a driver in New Delhi may have saved the planet from a nuclear Armageddon. That morning, five heavily armed men driving a car packed with explosives slipped past guards at the Indian Parliament. After mistakenly turning into a lane used only by Vice-President Krishnan Kant, they tried to reverse but rammed into Kant’s official vehicle. A scuffle broke out with the vice-president’s security detail, and the terrorists started shooting. They killed eight security personnel and a gardener in a 40-minute firefight before being dispatched themselves. One terrorist managed to fire through Kant’s office door, narrowly missing him. Another gunman made it within metres of a doorway used by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee before being killed.

India blamed its rival Pakistan for orchestrating the attach and sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the border of the two countries, where there was heavy exchange of gunfire. Vajpayee said war was under consideration. Both sides put their nuclear missles on alert. “If we go to war, jolly good!” declared India’s top military chief, General S. Padmanabhan, adding that the country was prepared for a nuclear war and would not hesitate to annihilate Pakistan.

After several weeks of bluster and troop movements, an edgy calm was eventually restored. The global community was left to imagine what might have happened had the terrorists had better directions and done a Columbine at the legislature, then filled with 300 lawmakers and officials.

The long-simmering feud between India and Pakistan may seem far away, but there is real reason for Canada to feel embarrassed and ashamed about its role in allowing the tensions in the subcontinent to have potentially apocalyptic consequences. Canada’s program of exporting nuclear reactors – as economically dubious as it is strategically questionable – played a major role in the development of nuclear weapons in both India and Pakistan. Canada sold heavily subsidized reactors to both countries through the 1960s and 1970s, as evidence mounted that both wanted the bomb and would use Canadian technology to build it. The goal of exporting reactors, motivated largely by the suspect prestige that would come Canada’s way from nuclear sales, overrode issues like proliferation and global security. South Asia was left to live with the legacy.

Since September 11, that legacy has been put into stark relief. The security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is being questioned after reports that pro-Taliban Pakistani military officers could overthrow President Pervez Musharraf and leave the country’s bomb arsenal up for grabs. Also worrying is news that top retired Pakistani nuclear weapons scientists met with Osama bin Laden to discuss his plans for acquiring a nuclear device. The expertise of at least one of these men is traceable to Canada.

In February, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its symbolic Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight in response to the Indo-Pakistan conflict and fears about nuclear terrorism. It warned that the threat of a nuclear war was closer than at any time in the past 15 years. Canadian hands might easily be accused of having helped wind that clock. “Whenever you provide a country with nuclear technology, even for the production of power, you contribute to the weapons expertise of that country,” says Sean Maloney, a war studies professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. “It’s not too much of a leap.”

Like two childhood friends now past their prime, the bomb and Canada’s nuclear program have had their share of adventures to reflect on. The Canadian program was a baby of the Manhattan Project – the top-secret U.S. effort to build the first bombs during World War II. Canada has a third of the world’s uranium supply, and a mine on the shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories produced much of the uranium for the earliest U.S. bombs. Equally vital to the Manhattan project were Canadian scientists at secret laboratories in Montreal and Chalk River, Ontario. The Canadian efforts were recognized for scientific brilliance, and the war left Canada with the second-largest nuclear research infrastructure in the world after the U.S. Of the 50-odd reactor designs that were circulating in the 1940s and 1950s, only two have survived until today: one Canadian, one American. The Canadian design, the NRX, was the most powerful reactor in the world at the time. It was specifically designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium and would supply much of the U.S. military demand for years to come.

Canadian scientists reminisce with pride about these early years. “It was a glorious time for us,” says Gil Bartholomew, the retired director of the physics division at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), the federal agency that designs reactors and sells them in Canada and abroad. “I’m sure glad I was there then and not now.”

Canada would end up playing a role not only in the U.S. bomb program but also in those of Britain and France, as scientists in those countries embarked on weapons programs based on the Canadian research after the war. Unintentionally, Canada’s labs also contributed to the Soviet A-bomb project when the KGB infiltrated Chalk River before being exposed by Igor Gouzenko, a defector from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa.

“What other country has been involved in so many nuclear weapon programs? I can’t think of one,” says Gordon Edwards, the Montreal-based president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear responsibility. “And always it’s in this typical self-effacing low-key Canadian way, saying, ‘What, oh me, did I do all that?”

Over the next decades, the Canadian nuclear establishment would seek to parlay its early military achievements into the construction of civilian power reactors at home and around the world. It was one of Canada’s few high-tech industries with a big export potential, and there were handsome economic spinoffs – or so nuclear officials assured. There was also the prestige that came from membership in the rarefied club of nuclear nations.

Behind it all was a quasi-religion of nuclear boosterism in which the high priests were scientists and the gospel was atomic power as a clean, limitless fuel source of the future. The gospel was enshrined in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, which sought to promote nuclear energy around the world. India, with its huge and exploding population and limited resources, was the ideal candidate. In 1956, it became Canada’s first customer for a nuclear reactor.

There is little question that the sale of the CIRUS reactor was of dubious economic benefit. Canada essentially gave the $17-million reactor to India as a foreign-aid project, with the Canadian government covering more than half of the cost with an outright grant. Based on the powerful NRX, which supplied plutonium to the U.S. weapons program, CIRUS was also a highly efficient factory for plutonium. Canada’s contract with India said the plutonium created by CIRUS ws not to be used in nuclear weapons. But Canada, caving to Indian pressure and eager for its first nuclear beachhead in the developing world, had not insisted on controls to make sure that didn’t happen.

The reactor was online only two years when the security situation in South Asia deteriorated dramatically. In 1962, China defeated India in a war over disputed border territory. The conflict changed Indian thinking about strategic matters, not so much because of any threat posed by China, but rather because of India’s feeling that its international stature had suffered. Indians, until then overwhelmingly opposed to the bomb on moral grounds, started calling for nukes as a way of restoring national pride.

None of this had any noticeable impact on Canada. The Indo-Chinese war had broken out in the middle of negotiations with India for the sale of the new CANDU.

Canada, once again, was eager to provide fantastic subsidies. The financing negotations were still going on when Dr. Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear program, gave a crystal-clear indication that India was interested in acquiring the bomb. Speaking to an international conference on disarmament, he declared that a “country with a huge population, such as China, must always present a threat to its smaller neighbours, a threat they can only meet either by collective security or by recourse to nuclear weapons to redress the imbalance in size.”

For anyone who might have missed his point, Bhabha also noted that “any knowledge of operating a reactor for peaceful purposes can be employed later for operating a reactor for military purposes.” He then proceeeded to detail precise steps a country could take to exploit a foreign-supplied reactor for a clandestine bomb program.

The speech had no apparent impact on the negotiations or nuclear relations with Canada. In April 1964, Canada concluded a generous financing agreement for the 200-megawattRajasthan Atomic Power Plant-1, giving India a low-cost $37 million US loan to pay for Canadian technology and services that came with the $76-million RAPP-1 reactor. Canada threw in, free of charge, all the design and technical information for construction of the reactor, which ultimately enabled India to build a network of so-called “CANDU clones.”

While preparations were under way for construction to start on the CANDU, tensions in Asia increased again. In October 1964, China tested its first nuclear device. A month later, India’s prime minister reversed the country’s long-standing opposition to nuclear explosives.

The developments spread concern around the world – everywhere, it seems, except in Canada. Ottawa could have suspended the RAPP-1 reactor deal, cut off subsidies or halted other co-operation. But Canada’s nuclear ties with India kept expanding. Construction of the first CANDU went ahead in August 1965. In December 1966, Canada signed another agreement with India to sell a second 200-megawatt CANDU power reactor, the RAPP-2, in another heavily subsidized deal.

In Washington, U.S. State Department officials were getting nervous. In March 1966, the department sent a cable to the U.S. embassy in New Delhi warning that India had made enough technical strides to explode a nuke “within a year following such a decision.” The cable, obtained through the Freedom on Information Act by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., also warned that India was diverting plutonium from the reactor into weapons. Burning uranium in the CIRUS and other Canadian reactors creates plutonium, a radioactive material that does not occur naturally. The uranium fuelling the CIRUS, much of which came from northern Canada, was reportedly being removed prematurely in such a way as to maximize its plutonium content. “While this circumstance alone does not necessarily indicate that a decision has been made to develop nuclear weapons,” the cable said, “it hints strongly that suitable material is being produced to permit the rapid implementation of such a decision.”

A former head of India’s nuclear regualtory agency confirms that fuel was being prematurely removed and says Canadians at the site knew it was happening. Adi Gopalakrishnan says, however, that the fuel was removed prematurely only because of problems with the aluminum covering for the uranium fuel rods, called the cladding. “Later, there was a realization that [India] had a stockpile for a bomb.”

A retired AECL senior manager who helped oversee nuclear collaboration with India in the 1960s agrees that Canadian technicians stationed at CIRUS would have known about the plutonium diversion. But the manager, who requested anonymity, says he had never heard of any problems with the cladding, which Canada used itself in its own reactors. He says Canadian officials were loath to protest any fuel diversions out of fear that this would disrupt relations with India. “We were just interested in the science. Nobody really wants to rock the boat,” he says. “It’s quite obvious there was not enough vigilance. Certainly more could have been done.”

Reid Morden, who spent much of the 1960s with the external affairs department, including a stint as a Canadian nuclear disarmament negotiator, confirms that Canadian officials were concerned about fuel diversion at the time. “The presumption always was that they were diverting plutonium,” says Morden, who later went on to become director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and president of the AECL.

The knowledge didn’t compromise Canadian-Indian relations. Even after the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff warned in 1967 that India “will probably detonate a nuclear device within the next few years,” co-operation with Canada expanded. One reason Canada and the U.S. so wilfully overlooked India’s nuclear ambitions was Cold War politics. India was seen in the West as a bulwark against Mao’s China. State Department officials at one point in the 1960s even toyed with the idea of giving India the bomb as a way to counterbalance Beijing’s atomic program. India, wracked by food shortages and trying to establish a post-colonial profile, artfully played Washington off Moscow and sought the bomb to pump up its stature on the world stage. Worries about nuclear proliferation proved to be no match for these political intrigues and machinations.

When, in 1974, India finally detonated “the Smiling Buddha,” an eight-kiloton underground nuclear explosion at Pokhran, near the border with Pakistan, it was an event people in the know had almost grown tired if waiting for. Still, official – if disingenuous – indignation was called for. International inspectors were sent to knock on doors in non-nuclear states to check for illegal diversion of radioactive material into weapons. Canada and the U.S., among others, slapped sanctions on both India and Pakistan – the latter had vowed to build a bomb in response to the Smiling Buddha. Nuclear weapons, which the big five nuclear powers had been stockpiling for years, suddenly became a fixture of international debate and treaties.

No country pretended to more outrage than Canada. After the Smiling Buddha, Canada cut off two decades of nuclear co-operation with India, pulled out its nuclear technicians and suspended sales of atomic materials. The Canadian nuclear establishment expressed mortification, insisting it had had no idea India was building the bomb. The official view was one of shock and surprise, along with reluctant acknowledgment of Canada’s role.

Morden maintains the Smiling Buddha was the last thing Canadian officials expected. “If there is one thing we have really been constant on, it is that we have been on the forefront of trying to restrict nuclear weapons,” he says. “I don’t think we had the slightest desire, interest or purpose in looking the other way,” he says.

But the Canadian declarations of distress have caused much eye-rolling among proliferation experts and scientists. “If you don’t want India to develop nuclear weapons, don’t sell them a power reactor and act all surprised that they developed the bomb,” says George J. Lolos, a sub-atomic physicist and head of the physics department at the University of Regina. “There was no surprise. Give me a break.”

If Canada was happy to turn a blind eye to India’s ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons, Pakistan wasn’t. As early as 1964, according to a declassified U.S. State Department cable, Pakistani President Ayub Khan “expressed his deep concern at [the] prospect of rapidly developing Indian nuclear capability which could be readily converted from peaceful to war-like purposes.” In March 1965, The Manchester Guardian reported that the “spectre” of an Indian bomb “haunted” Pakistan’s leaders. Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously told the newspaper that if India produced nuclear weapons, “then we should have to eat grass and get one, or buy one, of our own.”

Pakistani fears were so strong that some academics believe they were a key factor in Pakistan’s initiating its 1965 war with India. They argue that Pakistan saw the war as a final opportunity to grab the long-disputed border territory of Kashmir before India obtained the bomb. The war left 20,000 dead or wounded; Kashmir remained part of India.

The previous year, Canada had signed an agreement with Pakistan to build the 137-megawatt Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP). The outbreak of war with India had no impact on Canada’s involvement in the region and most of the $63-million US expense for the new CANDU reactor was financed with low-cost Canadian government loans. Construction of the new reactor started in August 1966, and the reactor came online in October 1972. During those years, the region’s stability went from bad to worse. In 1971, Pakistan became embroiled in another war with India and in a civil war tha tresulted in the partition of the country. A Canadian engineer who helped manage the KANUPP project recalls the wobbly security situation at the time. “We had to stop work for a while,” says William Brown, who was in charge of engineering development at the KANUPP. “Construction was interrupted for nine to 12 months (out of concern for) the security of Canadian personnel. We were getting a little nervous having our staff there.”

In January 1972, construction of the reactor was not yet complete when Bhutto, by then president, convened a secret meeting to launch Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. As in India, the Canadian reactor sale meant the transfer of nuclear material, training, infrastructure and equipment to Pakistan that, according to proliferation experts, became the foundation for the country’s bomb program. Pakistan didn’t conduct its first nuclear tests until 1998, but it is generally believed to have acquired a nuclear-explosive capability in the late 1980s. Unlike India, Pakistan did not use plutonium derived from Canadian uranium in its bombs. Proliferation experts do, however, suspect that Pakistan diverted plutonium from KANUPP for nuclear weapons research.

Canada quietly resumed nuclear technical assistance to both Pakistan and India in the late 1980s. It kept flowing even after both countries conducted tit-for-tat nuclear tests in 1998. The nuclear aid was provided so surreptitiously that even Lloyd Axworthy, then foreign affairs minister, was apparently unaware of it. When confronted by reporters about the aid after the 1998 tests, Axworthy was adamant that Canada had no nuclear contacts with Pakistan or India. Two days later, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien acknowledged the aid but defended it as being purely for safety purposes. But many nuclear experts say the assistance also helps the weapons programs of both countries by teaching their scientists how to run reactors more efficiently. Especially problematic, they say, is the fact that Canada has provided aid to India’s network of CANDU-clone reactors, which operate outside of international controls and are believed to produce plutonium for weapons.

Officially, the Canadian nuclear establishment denies any responsibility for bringing nukes to South Asia. “I know for a fact that the CANDU reactor, the fuel, whatever, cannot be used to do that,” says Louise Duhamel, the AECL’s general manager of communications. Another AECL official, David Lisle, says Canadian-supplied reactors are under “stringent” international controls to ensure fuel is not diverted into weapons. Brown, the engineer at the KANUPP project, says the Pakistanis he worked with had no interest in weapons. “All of the guys who came to train in Canada were very sincere guys who were just interested in operating a power reactor.”

But a broad range of scientists, proliferation experts and government officials say Canada’s contribution was fundamental. “The story would begin with the Canadian help,” says Ashok Kapur,chair of the ipolitical science department at the University of Waterloo and author of several books on the nuclear programs of India and Pakistan. “CANDU technology was the starting point.” Zia Mian, a Princeton University physicist and expert on nuclear proliferation in South Asia, agrees. Canada’s role was “absolutely indispensable,” he says. “Without it, India, especially, would not have gotten nuclear weapons.” A senior U.S. State Department non-proliferation official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Canadian-supplied nuclear infrastructure “facilitated the development of nuclear weapons. It provided a foundation on which a nuclear weapons program could be built.”

Canada’s role, say the experts, went well beyond being the source of the plutonium for the Smiling Buddha and selling Pakistan a reactor on the cheap. Perhaps the most important Canadian contribution to the South Asian bomb was training for the first generation of Indian and Pakistani nuclear experts. Some 260 scientists and engineers from India and up to 50 from Pakistan trained at Canadian reactors like Chalk River and Point Lepreau, New Brunswick. Many went on to work in weapons development.

“By having a buddy relationship with other nuclear scientists, you can pick up all sorts of things,” says Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. “Facts, properties of materials, research information that can help with development of nuclear weapons. You learn scuttlebutt, the things that went wrong. So much of it is done just by rubbing shoulders and talking.” The revolving door between India’s and Pakistan’s civilian and military nuclear programs meant Canada was effectively providing apprenticeships for future bomb makers. A case in point is the man who co-ordinated India’s secret preparations for the 1974 Pokhran test, P.K. Iyengar. A physicist, he trained at the AECL’s Chalk River research lab before going on to head India’s nuclear weapons research centre and India’s Atomic Energy Commission, which runs the country’s civilian and military nuclear programs. Iyengar was a frequent visitor to Canadian reactors even after the Smiling Buddha, arranging trips through old friends in the 1980s and 1990s.

Perhaps the most notorious example is Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, the Pakistani nuclear engineer who reportedly tried to help Osama bin Laden get the bomb. A report from an Indian think-tank, the South Asia Analysis Group, said Mahmood was “believed to be Canadian trained.” But both the AECL and Foreign Affairs refuse to provide the names of Indians or Pakistanis who had come to Canada to train.

Mahmood came to prominence in the early 1970s when he designed a device to detect water leaks at the Canadian-supplied Karachi Nuclear Power Plant – a device for which he holds two patents in Canada. He later spearheaded work on a research reactor near Islamabad that experts believe can produce about 100 kilograms of enriched uranium a year, enough for half a dozen bombs. He was also the chief designer of a plutonium-producing reactor that, according to experts, has played a major role in Pakistan’s bomb program. Mahmood eventually rose to become director-general of nuclear power at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.

Through the years, Mahmood made little effort to hide his extreme religious views. An outspoken admirer of the Taliban, he openly advocated that Pakistan follow in the footsteps of the fundamentalist Afghan movement. He also penned bizarre papers arguing, for example, that harnessing genies could solve Pakistan’s energy problems. “He is a kook,” says Zia Mian, the Princeton physicist.

Mahmood was forced to retire in 1999 after, it is said, calling for large-scale production of weapons-grade plutonium to furnish other Islamic countries with nuclear weapons. Bitter toward the government, Mahmood entertained close ties with the Taliban and, according to The Washington Post, eventually had “extensive” meetings with Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda officials to discuss nuclear weapons before September 11.

Experts are divided on how successful bin Laden has been in his atomic ambitions. U.S. officials say he does not yet possess a nuclear bomb, but there is evidence he was able to acquire some nuclear material. Pro-U.S. Afghan forces reportedly discovered low-grade uranium in oil drums and metal boxes left behind by fleeing al-Qaeda forces at the Kandahar airport in December; the uranium could have been used to make a so-called “dirty bomb,” a crude radioactive device wrapped arounda conventional explosive.

There is a consensus that Pakistan, because of its instability, is, after Russia, the most likely country where terrorists or other rogue forces could procure a nuclear device or bomb material. Experts warn that Mahmood’s al-Qaeda contacts reflect a broad pro-Taliban sympathy in Pakistan’s powerful intelligence, military and nuclear establishments. And they point out that rising tensions in Pakistan are closely linked to the latest strife with India. CIA director George Tenet told the U.S. Congress in March that the chances of a war between Pakistan and India are “higher than at any point since 1971” and warned that a conventional war could easily escalate into a nuclear confrontation. Indeed, a retired Pakistani brigadier who advises deposed prime minister Benazir Bhutto was quoted in a recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly saying he hopes to see a nuclear war with India before he dies. “We should fire at them and take out a few of their cities – Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta. They should fire back and take Karachi and Lahore. Kill off a hundred or two hundred million people. . . . It would teach all of us a lesson. There is no future here, and we need to start over. So many people think this.”

Why would Canada risk proliferation of nuclear weapons and the consequences to global security in order to export reactors? What could warrant taking such a gamble?

The explanations vary. Some point to the economic benefits of reactor sales for Canada. In a 1993 study commissioned by the AECL, Ernst & Young said that through generation of electricity at home and reactor sales abroad Canada’s nuclear industry had pumped $23 billion into the economy since 1962, creating 30,000 direct jobs. The firm calculated direct federal subsidies to AECL at $5 billion.

But anti-nuclear researchers David Martin and David Argue criticize the study for exaggerating the benefits and minimizing the costs. They came out with a rival study in 1996 that said Ernst & Young had counted some jobs twice and even three times, not included recent layoffs, included civil service jobs in the nuclear total and misinterpreted the nuclear industry’s own figures. Actual nuclear employment, they said, was 18,400.

As for the economic impact, Martin and Argue reported that the nuclear program had been sucking Canada dry. With inflation factored in, the federal government’s subsidies were actually $13 billion since 1952, not including billions more in indirect funding and provincial subsidies. All told, federal inputs actually amounted to a staggering “opportunity cost” of $120 billion (the return of an average investment for that length of time), the researchers said. “Canada’s economy would have been much better off if the government had simply used the AECL subsidies to reduce the national debt,” Martin and Argue wrote.

Independent figures seem to confirm that the industry is a money pit. In 1995, University of Lethbridge economist George Lermer calculated that federal subsidies to the AECL had cost about $73 billion, based on the opportunity cost of the investment. “Like a fire the nuclear industry has been a creator of economic activity but a destroyer of wealth,” says Norm Rubin, director of nuclear research at Energy Probe, a Toronto energy-policy think-tank.

Cold War politics motivated much of Canada’s nuclear policy. George J. Lolos, the University of Regina physicist, says anti-Soviet intrigue often shaped the nuclear decisions of Canada and the U.S., fogging over proliferation concerns. “One has to take into account that the Soviet bloc was a threat, and India was seen as a big counter-bloc in Asia.” Later on, when Pakistan’s bomb program was hitting its stride in the 1980s, the West again turned a blind eye, he said, because Pakistan was the staging area for the U.S. covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and noted proliferation expert, agrees: “They were supporting the [Afghan] mujahedeen and they turned the other way to this monster they were creating. It was expediency and lack of principles that brought them this gift.

For Canada, reactor exports also meant entrée into the rarefied nuclear club and international circuits of power. “In the times it was done, you have to try to understand the context,” says Reid Morden, the former AECL president. “[India] was a new Commonwealth nation moving out of colonization. If the Indians did a deal with you, there was a tremendous amount of respect for what they had done. As well, we were very anxious to sell CANDU technology.”

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