In January, David Albright and Paul Brannan released satellite images demonstrating that Pakistan had resumed construction at a facility near Pakistan’s Chasma reactor. The facility is basically a set of empty buildings, but the story is how they came to be empty: France canceled the proposed sale of a plutonium reprocessing facility to Pakistan, under US pressure in 1978.
The building has been empty ever since. After the US had discouraged China from picking up for France in 1997, one U.S. official told Mark Hibbs that Pakistan “may well have gotten some equipment” from foreign suppliers, but the reprocessing complex at Chasma “is an empty shell.”
Construction, of course, would suggest that Pakistan was moving to fill the shell with a large reprocessing facility—initial estimates were 100-200 kg of plutonium per year— as part of an effort to shift to plutonium-based nuclear devices.
And, indeed, anonymous “informed sources” are telling the Kyodo News (really?) that “The reprocessing plant is nearing completion.” According to the sources, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) developed the ability to manufacture some components domestically and outsourced the rest.
We don’t know what constitutes “informed” but, along with the past purpose of the facility, Pakistan’s repeated efforts to acquire reprocessing technology and the resumption of construction … well, that’s mighty suspicious.
The diplomacy to convince the French to cancel the project resulted in one of the funniest cables I have ever found.
Apparently INR, at the very last moment during the summer of 1978, concluded that France would not cease assistance after all. Arthur Hartman, then-US Ambassador to France, cabled back with a sarcastic note to the “DEPT. OF HIGHER INTELLIGENCE—PAKISTAN REPROCESSING DIVISION”:
OH YE OF LITTLE FAITH, I WOULD APPRECIATE SOME DAY (AT YOUR SUMMER LEISURE) AN ACCOUNT OF WHAT MYSTERIOUS SIGNS IN THE ENTRAILS LED YOU ALL TO CONCLUDE AT THE LAST MINUTE THAT THE FRENCH WOULD NOT DO IT. I REALIZE THAT A HIGH-MINDED FRENCHMAN WITH IDEALISTIC CONCERNS FOR HUMANITY IS NOT EVERYBODY’S IMAGE OF M. DUPONT. BUT IS OUR INTELLIGENCE BASED SOLELY ON IMAGES?