Japan firms played into Khan’s nuclear hands

Key devices abetted disgraced proliferator's atomic arms quest

Kyodo News

Japanese companies played a key role in supplying equipment used for Pakistan’s nuclear arms program, investigations by Kyodo News in Islamabad and Tokyo have revealed in recent days.

Comments by Pakistan’s disgraced nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, and former employees of the companies reveal in detail for the first time how leading Japanese manufacturers knowingly and unknowingly helped Pakistan acquire nuclear capability and were incorporated into its supply framework.

Pakistan began work on its nuclear weapons program after the 1974 nuclear test by India, and Khan was put in charge of Pakistan’s uranium enrichment program in 1976. Another organization, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, was given the job of developing a plutonium supply route.

From then on, Khan’s organization, Khan Research Laboratories, and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission were working on parallel programs — the uranium enrichment route and the plutonium route — to build Pakistan’s bomb. Both organizations imported sizable amounts of equipment and materials into Pakistan.

Uranium enrichment is a technically demanding process that requires sophisticated equipment to transform natural uranium into nuclear fuel.

Investigations revealed that both Khan and the head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission visited Japan at least once in the 1980s to shop for their respective programs.

Khan, dubbed the “father of Pakistan’s nuclear program,” told Kyodo News in a written interview that Khan Research Laboratories acquired a wide range of machines, laboratory equipment and metal products from Japan.

One of the major acquisitions was the import of ring magnets, a key device required to manufacture centrifuges used for enriching uranium, Khan said.

Like several other countries “Japan was also a very, very important country for our imports,” he said.

Khan identified several Japanese companies from which materials, machines and equipment were acquired.

According to Khan, a midsize Tokyo-based trading house, Western Trading, which went bankrupt in 2004, acted as the point of contact with Khan’s side.

Mian Mohammad Farooq, a now-deceased Pakistani businessman who headed a Pakistani trading company, brokered several important transactions for Pakistan’s nuclear program with Japan and several other countries. Western Trading entered into business relations in the late 1970s with Farooq, who is believed to have put Khan Research Laboratories in touch with Western Trading.

According to a former employee of Western Trading who spoke on condition of anonymity, the company in the late 1980s exported to Pakistan at least 6,000 ring magnets made by a major Japanese metals producer. Khan also confirmed the imports from Japan.

The former employee claimed he never knew what the magnets would be used for.

“As a businessmen of a trading company, the priority is to sell goods,” he said, but hastened to add, “Of course I always obeyed the export laws.”

Khan also said that another key purchase was an electron microscope from Japan Electron Optics Laboratory. An electron microscope is required for testing the strength of the alloys used in the manufacture of centrifuges.

A former JEOL employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said two such microscopes and an X-ray diffractometer were sold to Khan’s organization for more than ¥60 million. In the interview, he clearly indicated he was aware of the nuclear nature of the work in which Khan was involved.

“Khan said he wanted to buy a JEOL electron microscope,” the former employee said. “The negotiations went smoothly.”

In Tokyo, JEOL confirmed that it exported an electron microscope to Khan Research Laboratories in the 1980s but claimed it was unaware of the kind of work the organization was involved in.

It has also been confirmed that another company, Hitachi Seiki, which went bankrupt in 2002, supplied equipment, including automatic lathes, to Khan through Western Trading.

In addition, maraging steel, beryllium thin sheets, beryllium-copper rods and other metal alloys with nuclear applications were acquired from Japanese firms, according to Khan.

A Pakistani court earlier this month declared Khan a free man, abolishing his five-year house arrest and other government-imposed restrictions.

Khan, who headed Pakistan’s nuclear enrichment program from 1976 to 2001, confessed in 2004 to transferring nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, but he later retracted the confession and claimed he had been framed and made a scapegoat.