Startling Claims about China-Pakistan Nuclear Cooperation

An article by a former U.S. Air Force Secretary in this month's Physics Today magazine says that China turned over the blueprints for its own first atomic bomb to Pakistan, started to provide Pakistan with nuclear weapons technology as early as 1982, and likely helped Pakistan conduct that country's first nuclear weapons test at a Chinese test site. The article, by Thomas Reed, whose career started with nuclear weapons work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the early 1950s, is based largely on allegations by Danny Stillman. Stillman, as director of technical intelligence at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was given official tours of Chinese nuclear facilities two decades ago. The two of them Reed and Stillman, are authors of a book telling the whole story, Nuclear Express, to be published early next year by Zenith Press.

Their arresting claims are best treated with caution. The American Institute of Physics, publisher of Physics Today, raises the question in its press release about the article of why the Chinese would have given Stillman the red carpet treatment he describes. "Why should the Chinese escort a knowledgeable American official on what became a sort of nuclear Marco Polo tour analogous to the fabled journey by the Venetian merchant through the heart of 13th century China?" asks Phil Schewe, AIP's chief physics information officer. Reed speculates that the Chinese wanted the West to be aware of their work, in which they took pride, and to treat them and their country with greater respect.

But does that explain why they would imply they directly helped Pakistan test nuclear weapons and say they started to share sensitive nuclear technology with Pakistan decades ago? To the extent they did such things--and there's been no doubt for a long time that to some extent they did--they have helped create a mega-problem for the West that is not making the West feel grateful.

Even if the most arresting allegations of the Reed-Stillman article and book turn out to not hold water, the secondary allegations are still absorbing. The various statements about China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation actually are tacked onto the article only at the very end. The bulk of the article describes visits to various highly sensitive facilities in detail, evoking a weirdness that often reminded this reader of passages in Don DeLillo's Underworld.

Stillman was impressed by the sophistication of the instrumentation the Chinese were using for nuclear test diagnostics, which he says "were every bit as good as those used in American nuclear tests." But he found an alarming absence of automated controls on Chinese nuclear weapons in the early 1990s; the Chinese basically were relying on human guards deemed loyal and trustworthy.


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