Could Pakistan's Nuclear Stockpile Be Vulnerable? Political turmoil in Pakistan is stoking fears about its nuclear weapons stockpile. Analysts say the concern isn't so much that al-Qaida will breach facilities, but that disgruntled scientists may gain access. There's also concern about what India may do if Pervez Musharraf is toppled.
NPR logo

Could Pakistan's Nuclear Stockpile Be Vulnerable?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Could Pakistan's Nuclear Stockpile Be Vulnerable?

Could Pakistan's Nuclear Stockpile Be Vulnerable?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The political turmoil in Pakistan is stoking fears about the security of that country's nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is believed to have at least 50 nuclear weapons. Analysts say they don't see any imminent danger the weapons will fall into the hands of radicals, but they're watching the situation closely.

Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Earlier this week, while the Bush administration was quietly following developments in Pakistan, the U.S. military issued the first public note of concern about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Lieutenant General Carter Ham is the director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Lieutenant General CARTER HAM (Director of Operations, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff): Any time there is a nation that has nuclear weapons and experience a situation such as Pakistan is of present, that is a primary concern.

NORTHAM: Senior officers often say that one of their greatest concerns is a nuclear-armed Pakistan. They have good reason to be worried, says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Dr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (President, Institute for Science and International Security): Pakistan has a bad history. It brought us A.Q. Khan who spread nuclear weapons designs and gas centrifuges to enrich uranium around the world. I mean, they had two nuclear scientists who sat down with Bin Laden in 2001 to discuss the manufacture of nuclear weapons. And it's a system that leaks. It's also a system that's remarkably corrupt.

NORTHAM: And now Pakistan's a nuclear-armed country in the midst of a political upheaval. Jon Wolfsthal, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says there's no need to push the panic button yet. But Wolfsthal says if Musharraf's grip on power continue to weaken, the worry over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal will grow.

Mr. JON WOLFSTHAL (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): I think there is actually fairly broad concern largely because nobody really knows how Pakistan secures their nuclear materials. Pakistan has been very reticent to share any information about how it secures materials and technology and its weapons with the United States. And so we are operating, to a certain extent, in the dark and hoping for the best.

NORTHAM: Analysts say nuclear-armed countries jealously guard information about their weapons, especially Pakistan where there's intense suspicion that the U.S. wants to seize all its nuclear weapons.

But after the black market network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan was exposed in 2004, Wolfsthal says the U.S. demanded Pakistan - do more to secure its nuclear weapons.

Mr. WOLFSTHAL: The United States in fact went at a very high level. Secretary Colin Powell went directly to Musharraf and said this is unacceptable. And we have to have some satisfaction that you're adequately controlling your technologies and materials.

NORTHAM: Wolfsthal says the U.S. advised Pakistan how to protect the nuclear facilities and weapons and how to make sure people with access to the weapons are reliable. David Albright says President Musharraf made great strides in centralizing control over Pakistan's nuclear weapons. He says the concern now is that that control might begin to unravel and that Pakistan's nuclear stockpile could fall into the hands of terror groups, such as al-Qaida.

But Albright believes the greater worry is that Pakistani scientists themselves may be willing to sell fissile material or nuclear technology for ideological reasons, or just for the money.

Dr. ALBRIGHT: You worry most about the insider, where a person may not even think about helping steal or steal a nuclear weapon or a nuclear explosive material when the controls are robust. But he may, when they weaken, just like, you know, if a bank a left a lot of its money on the counters, an honest person very well may pick up some.

NORTHAM: David Mosher, a nuclear policy analyst at RAND Corporation, says Pakistan's nuclear weapons are disassembled and spread around the country. The other positive note, says Mosher, is that Pakistan's military, not Musharraf, has tight control over the country's nuclear arsenal. Analysts say, so far, there is no sign of a serious split in the military, which could jeopardize that.

Mosher says he's not alarmed by the recent events in Pakistan. If safeguards begin to fall apart, however, Mosher says the wildcard is how would Pakistan's neighbor and nuclear rival, India, respond.

Mr. DAVID MOSHER (Nuclear Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation): They'd obviously be very nervous because certain groups would want to use it against them. But would they get involved in a military thing? That might just make things worse. I'm sure they're making plans.

NORTHAM: No doubt, the U.S. is also keeping a close watch for any signs of a nuclear crisis as events continue to develop in Pakistan.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.