Misperceptions about Pakistan’s nuclear tests

Published: June 17, 2017
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The writer is a social activist and political scientist who graduated from the Department of Defense & Diplomatic Studies, Fatima Jinnah Women’s University, Rawalpindi

The writer is a social activist and political scientist who graduated from the Department of Defense & Diplomatic Studies, Fatima Jinnah Women’s University, Rawalpindi

Last month, some highly contentious claims were made by a contributing writer to The Diplomat, an international current affairs magazine of the Asia-Pacific region. Since the article ‘The Fallout from Pakistan’s Nuclear Tests” was written for an international audience, the writer Shah Meer Baloch tried to contort the facts as much as possible and made the erroneous claim that unlike other Pakistanis who celebrate the May 28, 1998 nuclear tests as Youm-e-Takbir or Day of Goodness, the people of Balochistan treat it as a black day. Now where did that come from? How can an international publication carry an article based on little else but fabrication and lies? If truth be known, Balochistan is full of patriots who are proud of their country’s acquisition of nuclear powers some 19 years ago and in that they are no different from any other Pakistani.

The flawed, inaccurate and politically influenced piece starts with an intuitive statement which purports to be part of a popular narrative of a group of the population in Balochistan. No serious attempt was made to substantiate the claim of course. Several other sweeping generalisations were made as well.

For instance, the writer portrays as if the district or the entire provincial population was affected by the release of radiation from the 28th May 1998 Chagai nuclear tests. Had it been so, would Pakistan and China have chosen to build their prized infrastructure project, CPEC, in a radiation-rich region. Certainly not, right?

After reading the article the first thing that comes into one’s mind is that Indian Navy commander Kulbhushan Jadahav and Indian-backed terrorist groups were wearing gas masks while planning and executing their sabotage plots in Balochistan. Factually, there is no radiation exposure in the area; neither in Chagai nor in nearby areas.

Without representing the facts, he claimed that the locals of Balochistan still suffer because of the nuclear explosion that the government set off in the Ras Koh mountains 19 years ago. Ras Koh is an entirely uninhabited area and situated in Chagai district, where Western NGOs are active. Never mind the fact that nobody has ever filed a genuine complaint that local residents are being affected by the radiation fallout of nuclear testing in 1998.

The author also offered a comical account of how Baloch groups resisted the nuclear testing by deliberating the incident of hijacking of a PIA Flight 554 by Indian-backed terrorists on May 24, 1998.

It is very important to discuss here that underground testing is much safer than aboveground testing. With underground testing, it is easy to contain the radiation. In Pakistan’s case, this was not done in haste though these came in response to India’s own 12 May tests. The selection of site, deep digging of the hills, preparations for detonation, etc, had been made long before 1984. Besides, all kind of collateral damage, aftershocks, effects and causes had already been evaluated and calculated.

A team of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) comprising Dr Ishfaq Ahmad, Member (Technical), and Dr Ahsan Mubarak started the operational reconnaissance of some areas in Balochistan in 1976. Over a span of three days, the PAEC scientists made several reconnaissance tours of the area between Turbat, Awaran and Khuzdar in the south and Naukundi-Kharan in the east.

After a painstaking search, they found a mountain which matched their specifications. This was a 185-metre high granite mountain in the Ras Koh Hills in the Chagai division of Balochistan which at their highest point rise to a height of 3,009 metres. Ras Koh Hills are independent of and should not be confused with the Chagai Hills further north on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in which, to date, no nuclear test activity has taken place.

The PAEC requirement was that the mountain should be “bone dry” and capable of withstanding a 20-kiloton nuclear explosion from the inside. Tests were conducted to measure the water content of the mountains and the surrounding area and to measure the capability of the mountain’s rock to withstand a nuclear test. Once this was confirmed, Dr Ishfaq Ahmed commenced work on a three-dimensional survey of the area. Only after an extensive and hectic survey, the Pakistani government commenced work on the tunnel buildup and rescue plans were prepared in advance.

The rescue plans are said to be still ready but the detonations of 1998 were so sophisticated like that of the highly-upgraded technology Pakistan used that not a single individual of the population was affected. Shah Meer should have taken some radiation readings from a simple device like a Geiger counter before publishing the article. Rather than publishing fake stories, regarding Pakistan’s nuclear testing, The Diplomat must take into account the aggravated fears of the villages in the vicinity of the Pokhran test range, which have long fallen out of the international spotlight.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2017.

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