AQ Khan and Nuclear Bomb : Part VIII : Kahuta Nuclear Plant aka Butter Factory aka Project 706

On 31 July 1976 they gave A. Q. Khan the authorization to construct his own enrichment facility, the Engineering Research Laboratories. They also gave it a codename: Project 706.

Khan set himself a seven-year deadline to build a bomb. To meet it, he sought out the brightest technicians, physicists and engineers in Pakistan and ripped apart the scientific establishment to get them, offering unheard-of salaries, perks, pensions and government bungalows. “Some of the heads of the organizations made such a hue and cry [about losing their employees] that it seemed as if the heavens would fall in,” he wrote. Among those he employed were Dr. Farooq Hashmi, a metallurgist trained at Southampton University, who became his deputy director, Dr. Alam, a British-educated computer programmer and mathematician, and Brigadier General Anis Ali Syed, on secondment from the Pakistan army, who became the head of the Special Works Organization, a military unit created to procure equipment for Project 706. Khan often used his hotline to the prime minister to ensure he got the last word, and by the autumn of 1976 the message had got through: Khan was not to be tangled with.

All elements of Project 706 started simultaneously: the building of the main plant at Kahuta, the procurement of essential equipment and materials from Europe, the manufacture of the first prototypes, the establishment of a pilot plant in which to test them, even a weapons design center. Khan had calculated he would need at least ten thousand centrifuges to supply a viable bomb program. He had plumped for the CNOR prototype as it was simpler to build, and since it had been abandoned by URENCO in favor of the G-2 there were dozens of suppliers with vast stockpiles of unwanted components they were desperate to sell. But the CNOR had a design flaw that URENCO had never completely resolved: its bottom bearing, a tiny ball stuck onto a needle and attached to the base plate of the machine’s rotor. The needle supported the weight of the rotor as it spun at up to 70,000 rpm, and to counter the friction a spiral groove, virtually invisible to the human eye, was etched on to the underside of the bearing, which sat in a tiny cup of lubricant. High-definition computer-driven lathes had to etch this groove onto the underside of the bearing, and even a minute irregularity would cause the rotor to tilt and the machine to crash. The exact dimensions of the bearing and its spiral groove had been among the most highly classified secrets at the Almelo plant, and it was clear from letters that Khan now sent to former colleagues at URENCO that he had been unable to obtain these specifications.

It was just another problem on a long list of challenges to surmount. “It was an uphill task with every step being marred by a new set of intricate problems … A country which could not make sewing needles, good bicycles or even durable metalled roads was embarking on one of the latest and most difficult technologies,” he wrote.

A small power station was also constructed to make Kahuta independent of Pakistan’s grid, which was so unstable and overdrawn that during the summer large sections of Rawalpindi and Islamabad were plunged into darkness. Khan also insisted that Project 706 aim to become self-sufficient in manufacturing components, and Brigadier Sajawal was ordered to build machine-tool workshops, ready to house state-of-the-art European equipment capable of reverse-engineering centrifuge parts. Aside from the technical sections, Kahuta also needed guard towers, alarm systems, a paved road wide enough for trucks, communications, staff facilities, guest houses for visiting scientists. Brigadier Sajawal estimated that the basic infrastructure alone would take three years to finish. So, while his men bulldozed, Khan and his small team of scientists worked on designing a Pakistani prototype centrifuge (which they called the P-1)

Griffin, who would become inseparable from Khan, supplying machines, parts and tools to him for two decades, recounted how, in the summer of 1976, when he was a young sales manager at a Swansea-based machine-tool supplier called Scimitar, he received a phone call that would change his life. For Abdus Salam, the Pakistani-born businessman on the other end of the line, it was a misdial. He had been looking for the British office of US machine-tool giant Rockwell International, which helped make NASA’s space shuttle, but instead got the UK agent of its power-tool division in Wales. Nevertheless, the conversation that followed led to an introduction to Khan. Griffin said: “Salam wanted £1 million in Rockwell power tools. Top-of-the-range, US-made equipment. One million pounds of it. Of course I could do the deal even though I was not Rockwell. We agreed to meet in London.” There, Salam revealed that the equipment was for a “brilliant young Pakistani scientist” called Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was “trying to help his country industrialize and enter the modern age.”

There were often loyalties at play beyond Griffin’s comprehension. Once, when he tried to convince Khan to stop buying laser rangefinders from China which were actually manufactured by Israel and would have been far cheaper sourced directly from there, Khan had refused. “No, we import them from the Chinese,” he said. “The Chinese are our friends.”

The Pakistanis sometimes referred to their burgeoning network as “Operation Butter Factory,” a name that harked back to the 1960s when Albrecht Migule had built a margarine factory for the son of General Ayub Khan. Khan, Butt, ul-Haq and other ISI agents mentioned this in-joke in their correspondence, describing enriched uranium as “cake,” “sweets” or “biscuits,” the end product produced from the “butter” or UF6 that Migule had helpfully provided by building the fluorine and uranium conversion plants. But on the ground, Khan’s men made very little attempt to cover their tracks, preparing contracts that stipulated delivery directly to the Director General, Special Works Organization, Rawalpindi, and handing out checks from government accounts held at the National Bank of Pakistan.

One reason for this openness was that Khan knew that Europe had no idea what he was up to. Because centrifuge technology was so new and poorly understood, the checks and balances that should have been triggered by the trade failed. Most of the components Khan requested were not on any IAEA list of nuclear-sensitive equipment and were not subject to any European export controls. Even though some of the components were vast, among them a complete gasification and solidification unit (to feed UF6 gas into the centrifuges and then transform it back into a solid form) which required three Hercules C-130 transport planes to get it to Pakistan, most sales were vetted and approved by Europe’s governments.

Greed, lax custom inspections, an overly bureaucratic IAEA, governments’ pursuit of their national interests, and antiquated legislation were all being exploited ruthlessly, and clearly Western governments and suppliers underestimated Pakistan. Dr. Shafiq, whose father was busy building centrifuge halls as components came flooding in, reflected: “Everything came from the UK, Germany and France and was openly transacted. The companies would tell their governments, ‘These silly buggers in Pakistan want to spend billions’ and their governments would say, ‘If these silly buggers have got the cash then let them have it.’ We would say vacuum pumps; we need them for oil and gas, etc. But it was all going to Kahuta.” Later, when he had all he needed, Khan openly agreed: “The Western world was sure that an underdeveloped country like Pakistan could never master this technology”

In Pakistan, things appeared to be going so well that in 1976 prime minister Bhutto ordered test tunnels to be constructed at two locations in western Balochistan, five in the Ras Koh range on the Balochistan plateau, and one beneath the sands of the Kharan Desert, a hundred miles to the west. Brigadier Muhammed Sarfaraz, chief of staff at 5 Corps, oversaw the building work along with Brigadier Sajawal. At Kharan, they constructed a vertical shaft 300 foot deep with a 700-foot horizontal tunnel leading off the bottom. In Ras Koh, five horizontal tunnels were bored directly into the side of a mountain. The tunnels were designed in the shape of a double “S” so that if a bomb was detonated, the explosion would move the mountain outwards and the tunnel would collapse inwards. Each one was capable of withstanding a 20-kiloton explosion explosion, the same magnitude as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Completed in 1980, the tunnels would be sealed until Pakistan was ready.

Despite all the activity at Kahuta and Ras Koh, the international community was oblivious to Pakistan’s uranium enrichment plans, going all out, instead, to block its ongoing deal with France on the reprocessing plant, which it viewed as a prelude to the production of a plutonium bomb. Straining to see what Pakistan was up to, the State Department put Robert Gallucci, a young official in the Bureau of Non-Proliferation, on to the case. He rummaged around in all the classified material he had access to and concluded that “Pakistan’s nuclear industry is not particularly worrisome now” as the Islamic Republic was “at the beginning of its nuclear development.”

US secretary of state Henry Kissinger had tried to head Bhutto’s nuclear ambitions off course during a meeting in New York in 1976, offering him a strange deal. Bhutto was to terminate his reprocessing project in favor of a US-supplied facility that would be located in Iran and be made available to all countries in the region. But Bhutto rejected the offer and, fearing that Pakistan was about to proceed to the next stage of plutonium production, the US Senate proposed an amendment to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act to block economic and military aid, threatening to cut off Pakistan’s annual $162 million US aid package. Bhutto was not rattled. The noise from the US Congress suited him fine, as he had no intention of going ahead with the costly reprocessing plant and was concentrating his energies on Project 706. “Bhutto himself was of the view that the work at Kahuta laboratories should be kept concealed from the world by focusing attention on the purchase of the reprocessing plant,” recalled Kauser Niazi, his information minister.60 Always on the lookout for cost efficiencies, Bhutto also hoped that if Pakistan was seen to abandon its reprocessing plans under American pressure it would not have to compensate the French when it finally pulled out of the deal.

[while Bhutto was under incarceration after Zia’s coup] Somehow, the exasperating CNOR centrifuge whose exacting design had made it so difficult to reconstruct in Pakistan was now up and running at the Sihala pilot plant. Khan was even preparing to introduce UF6 gas into the centrifuge chamber and to attempt, for the very first time, to enrich uranium. It was remarkably rapid progress for a man who just two years before had been a translator at the FDO lab in Amsterdam, and a solace for Bhutto as he awaited his fate.

Excerpted from “Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network

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