Abdul Qadeer Khan also known by some in Pakistan as Mohsin-e-Pakistan lit. “Benefactor of Pakistan“), more popularly known as A. Q. Khan, is a Pakistani nuclear physicist and a metallurgical engineer, colloquially regarded as the founder of HEU based Gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment program for Pakistan’s integrated atomic bomb project. He founded and established the Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL) in 1976, being both its senior scientist and the Director-General until his retirement in 2001, and he was an early and vital figure in other science projects. Apart from participating in Pakistan’s atomic bomb project, he made major contributions in molecular morphology, physical martensite, and its integrated applications in condensed and material physics.
Abdul Qadeer Khan was one of Pakistan’s top scientists, and was involved in the country’s various scientific programs until his dismissal. In January 2004, Khan was officially summoned for a debriefing on his suspicious activities in other countries after the United States provided evidence to the Pakistan Government, and confessed it a month later. He transferred nuclear technology and offered both training and material support to Iran and Libya to fight against Israel and neutralize its power. Some have alleged that these activities were sanctioned by the authorities, though the Pakistan government sharply dismissed the claims. After years of official house arrest, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on 6 February 2009 declared Abdul Qadeer Khan to be a free citizen of Pakistan, allowing him free movement inside the country. The verdict was rendered by Chief Justice Sardar Muhammad Aslam. In September 2009, expressing concerns over the Islamabad High Court’s decision to end all security restrictions on Khan, the United States warned that Khan still remains a “serious proliferation risk”.
Khan was born in 1936 in Bhopal, a princely state of the British Indian Empire, into an Urdu-speaking Rehmani family. His father Abdul Ghafoor Khan was an academic who served in the Education ministry of the British Indian Government and after retirement in 1935, settled permanently in Bhopal State. After the independence of Pakistan in 1947, the family emigrated from India to Pakistan, and settled in Karachi, West Pakistan. Khan studied in Saint Anthony’s High School of Lahore, and then enrolled at the D.J. Science College of Karachi to study physics and mathematics. After making a transfer in 1956, he attended Karachi University, obtained BSc in Metallurgy in 1960; subsequently he got the internship at the Siemens Engineering.
After the internship, he was employed by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation and worked as an city inspector of weights and measures in Karachi. In 1961, he went to West Berlin to study Metallurgical engineering at the Technical University Berlin. Qadeer Khan obtained an engineer’s degree in technology from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and a doctorate engineering in Metallurgical engineering under the supervision of Martin Brabers from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, in 1972. Qadeer Khan’s doctoral dissertations were written in German. His doctoral thesis dealt and contained fundamental work on martensite, and its extended industrial applications to the field of morphology, a field that studies the shape, size, texture and phase distribution of physical objects.
Research in Europe
In 1972, the year he received his doctorate, Abdul Qadeer Khan through a former university classmate, and a recommendation from his old professor and mentor, Martin J. Brabers, joined the senior staff of the Physics Dynamics Research Laboratory in Amsterdam. There, he began his studies on the high-strength metals to be used for the development of gas centrifuges. The gas centrifuges were first studied by Jesse Beams during the Manhattan Project in the 1940s but research was discontinued in 1944. The Physics Laboratory was a subcontractor for Urenco Group, the uranium-enrichment research facility at Almelo, Netherlands, which was established in 1970 by the Netherlands to assure a supply of enriched uranium for nuclear power plants in the Netherlands. Soon when the Urenco Group offered him to join the senior scientific staff there, Qadeer Khan left the Physics Laboratories. There, he was tasked to perform physics experiments on uranium metallurgy, to produce commercial-grade uranium metals usable for light water reactors. In the meantime, the URENCO Group handed him the drawings of centrifuges for the mathematical solution of the physics problems in the gas centrifuges.
Uranium enrichment is a difficult physical process, as 235U exists in natural uranium at a concentration of only 0.7%; URENCO used Zippe-type centrifuges for that purpose to separate the isotopes 235U from non-fissile 238U by spinning UF6 gas at up to 100,000RPM. Abdul Qadeer Khan’s academic and leading-edge research in metallurgy brought laurels to the URENCO Group. URENCO enjoyed a good academic relationship with him, and had him as one of its most senior scientists at the facility where he researched and studied. At URENCO, Abdul Qadeer Khan pioneering research to improve the efficiency of the centrifuges greatly contributed to the technological advancement of the Zippe centrifuges, a method that was developed by mechanical engineer Gernot Zippe in the Soviet Union during the 1940s.
1971 war and return to Pakistan
The clandestine and highly secretive atomic bomb project of Pakistan was given a start on 20 January 1972, when President (later Prime minister) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto chaired a secret meeting of academic scientists at Multan. The winter planning seminar known as Multan meeting, the atomic bomb project was launched under the administrative control of Bhutto, and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (or PAEC) under its chairman, Munir Ahmad Khan. Earlier efforts were directed towards the implosion-type bomb with exploration of the Plutonium route.
Prior to 1974, Khan had no knowledge of existence of country’s integrated atomic development, a controversy that highly doubts Abdul Qadeer Khan’s “father-of” claim. It was only on 18 May 1974, when he was alerted after India surprised the world with its first nuclear test (codename: Smiling Buddha), near Pakistan’s eastern border under the secret directives of Indian Premier Indira Gandhi. Conducted by the Indian Army, it was only three years since Pakistan’s humiliating defeat in the 1971 Winter war and the outcomes of the war had put Pakistan’s strategic position in great danger. The nuclear test greatly alarmed the Government of Pakistan and the people. Prime minister Zulfikar Bhutto squeezed the time limit of the atomic bomb project from five years to three years, in a vision to evolve and derived the country’s scientific atomic project as from the “atomic capability to sustainable nuclear power”. Sensing the importance of this test, Munir Ahmad Khan secretly launched the Project-706, a codename of a secret uranium-enrichment program under the domain of the atomic project.
Following the news about Pakistan, Khan wanted to contribute to the post-war military posture and approached the Pakistan government officials, offering to assist in Pakistan’s secret atomic bomb project through his knowledge acquired at URENCO. He insisted in joining the atomic bomb project but was disuated by the military scientists who considered as “hard to find” a job in PAEC as a “metallurgist”.
Undaunted, he wrote to Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, highlighting his specific experience and encouraged Prime Minister Bhutto to work on an atomic bomb using uranium. According to Kuldip Nayyar, although the letter was received by Prime minister Secretariat, Qadeer Khan was still unknown to the Government, leading Bhutto to ask the ISI to run a complete background check on Khan and prepare an assessment report on him. The ISI declared him as “incompetent” in the field of nuclear technology, based on his academic discipline. Unsatisfied with ISI’s report, Bhutto was eager to know more about him, and asked Munir Ahmad Khan to dispatch a team of PAEC’s scientists to meet him. The PAEC team including Sultan Mahmood travelled to Amsterdam and arrived at his family home at night. Discussions were held until the next day. After the team’s return to Pakistan, Bhutto decided to meet with Khan, and directed a confidential letter to him. Soon after, Abdul Qadeer Khan took a leave from URENCO Group, and departed for Pakistan in 1974.
Initiation and atomic bomb project
In December 1974, Abdul Qadeer Khan went to Pakistan and took a taxi straight to the Prime minister Secretariat. The session with Bhutto was held at midnight and remained under extreme secrecy. There, Qadeer Khan met with Zulfikar Bhutto, Munir Khan, and Mübaschir Hassan, government Science Adviser. At this session, he enlightened the importance of uranium as opposed to plutonium, but Bhutto remain unconvinced to adopt uranium instead of plutonium for the development of an atomic bomb. Although Bhutto ended the session quickly he remarked to his friends that: “He seems to make sense.” Early morning the next day another session was held where he focussed the discussion on uranium against plutonium, with other PAEC officials presented.
Even though he explained to Bhutto why he thought the idea of “plutonium” would not work, Qadeer Khan was fascinated by the possibility of atomic bomb. Many of the theorists at that time, including Munir Khan maintained that “plutonium and the nuclear fuel cycle has its significance”, and Munir Khan insisted that with the “French extraction plant in the offing, Pakistan should stick with its original plan.” Bhutto did not disagree, but saw the advantage of mounting a parallel effort toward acquiring HEU fuel. At the last session with Zulfikar Bhutto, Khan also advocated for the development of a fused design to compress the single fission element in the metalised gun-type atomic device, which many of his fellow theorists said would be unlikely to work.
Finally in 1975, he joined the atomic bomb project, and became a member of the enrichment division at PAEC. Calculations performed by him were valuable contributions to centrifuges and vital link to nuclear weapon research. He continued to push his ideas for uranium methods even though they had a low priority, with most efforts still aimed to produce military-grade plutonium. Because of his interest in uranium, and his frustration at having been passed over for director of the uranium division (the job was instead given to Bashiruddin Mahmood), Qadeer Khan refused to engage in further research and caused tensions with other researchers. He became highly unsatisfied and bored with the research led by Mahmood; finally, he submitted a critical report to Bhutto, in which he explained that the “enrichment program” was nowhere near success.
Kahuta Research Laboratories
Bhutto sensed great danger as the scientists were split between uranium and plutonium routes. Therefore, he called Khan for a meeting, which was held at the prime minister secretariat. With the backing of Bhutto, Qadeer Khan took over the enrichment program and renamed the project to Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL). Abdul Qadeer Khan insisted to work with the Corps of Engineers to lead the construction of the suitable operational enrichment site, which was granted. The Engineer-in-Chief directed Brigadier Zahid Ali Akbar of Corps of Engineers to work with Qadeer Khan in Project-706. The Corps of Engineers and Brigadier Akbar quickly acquired the lands of the village of Kahuta for the project. The military realised the dangers of atomic experiments being performed in populated areas and thus remote Kahuta was considered an ideal location for research. Bhutto would subsequently promote Brigadier Zahid Akbar to Major-General and handed over the directorship of the Project-706, with Qadeer Khan being its senior scientist.
On the other hand, the PAEC did not forgo the electromagnetic isotope separation research and a parallel program was conducted by theoretical physicist G.D. Alam at Air Research Laboratories (ARL) located at Chaklala PAF base, though G.D. Allam had not seen a centrifuge, but only had a rudimentary knowledge of the Manhattan Project.At first, the ERL suffered many setbacks, and relied heavily on the knowledge from URENCO brought by Qadeer Khan. Meanwhile in April 1976, theorist Ghulam Dastagir Alam accomplished a great feat by successfully rotating the first generation centrifuges to ~30,000 RPM. When the news reached Qadeer Khan, he immediately requested to Bhutto for G.D. Alam’s assistance which was granted by the PAEC, dispatching a team of scientists including G.D. Alam to ERL. At ERL, Qadeer Khan joined the team of theoretical physicists headed by theorist G.D. Alam, working on the physics problems involving the differential equations in the centripetal forces and angular momentum calculations in the ultra-centrifuges. On 4 June 1978, the enrichment program became fully functional after G.D. Alam succeeded in separated the 235U and 238U isotopes in an important experiment in which A.Q Khan also took part. Contrary to his expectation, the military approved to the appointment of Major-General Zahid Ali as the scientific director of entire uranium division.
In 1981, when General Akbar was posted back to combat assignments, Khan took over the operations of ERL as its interim director and senior scientist. In 1983, his appointment as director of ERL was personally approved by President Zia-ul-Haq who renamed the ERL after him. Despite his role Khan was never in charge of the actual development of atomic bombs, mathematical and physics calculations, and eventual weapons testing. Outgoing General Zahid Ali recommended Munir Khan appointment as the scientific director of atomic bomb project. This appointment came as a shock to Khan and surprised many in the government and the military as Munir Khan was not known to be aligned to conservative military. The government itself restricted to provide full scientific data of atomic projects and had him required the government security clearance and clarifications of his visits of such secret weapons development sites, which he would be visiting with senior active duty officers.
In 1984, the KRL claimed to have carried out its own nuclear cold test of a nuclear weapon, but this was seemed to be unsuccessful while PAEC under Munir Khan had already carried out another test in 1983, codenamed: Kirana-I.PAEC’s senior scientists who worked with him and under him remember him as “an egomaniacal lightweight” given to exaggerating his scientific achievements in centrifuges. At one point, Munir Khan said that, “most of the scientists who work on the development of atomic bomb projects were extremely “serious”. They were sobered by the weight of what they don’t know; Abdul Qadeer Khan is a showman.” During the timeline of atomic bomb project, Qadeer Khan pushed his research into rigorous Theoretical Physics calculations and topics to compete, but yet failed to impress his fellow theorists at PAEC, generally at the physics community. In later years, Abdul Qadeer Khan became a staunch critic of Munir Ahmad Khan’s research in physics, and on many different occasions tried unsuccessfully to belittle Munir Khan’s role in the atomic bomb projects. Their scientific rivalry became public and widely popular in the physics community and seminars held in the country over the years.