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Amid Uranium Scare at Heathrow, Pakistan Confident its Nuclear Material is Secure

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Amid Uranium Scare at Heathrow, Pakistan Confident its Nuclear Material is Secure

Pakistan has an elaborate nuclear command and control system in place. So why does it get bad press on nuclear safety issues?

Amid Uranium Scare at Heathrow, Pakistan Confident its Nuclear Material is Secure
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Last week, Britain’s counterterrorism police opened an investigation into a package containing uranium that was seized at London’s Heathrow Airport on December 29. The package, which reportedly originated in Pakistan, was “destined for an Iranian business with premises in the UK,” The Guardian reported.

Confusion over the origin of the uranium persists. Pakistani officials claim that the shipment in question didn’t come from Pakistan as was being claimed by the British media. Reportedly, the uranium was found in a shipment of scrap metal and was “embedded into metal bars.

However, the Oman Airlines flight that allegedly carried the radioactive material left Karachi on December 29 for Muscat and its cargo only contained “frozen meat and garments.” “No metal or out-sized cargo was booked on the flight [from Pakistan],” an official who was briefed on the issue emphasized, according to Dawn.

Following the seizure of the radioactive material, British police clarified that reports about a large amount of radioactive material and its potential use to make a bomb are devoid of truth. “I want to reassure the public that the amount of contaminated material was extremely small and has been assessed by experts as posing no threat to the public,” said Commander Richard Smith of the Met. On January 15, British police arrested a man in his 60s under terrorism laws in connection with the investigation. However, he was released later on bail, with the police clarifying that despite the arrest, the incident does “not appear to be linked to any direct threat to the public.”

“No information to this effect has been shared with us officially. We are confident that the reports are not factual,” Foreign Office Spokes­person Mumtaz Zahra said last week. Moreover, officials in Pakistan are concerned that the country is falsely being linked to the development to malign its image.

Over the years, Pakistan has made enormous efforts to enhance its nuclear security culture. Last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission praised Pakistan’s nuclear safety regulations saying that the country has made “clear improvements to make its regulatory infrastructure more efficient and effective.”

Although Pakistan was ranked 19th of 22 countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials in the NTI’s Nuclear Security Index for 2020, its Security and Control Measures score increased by 25 points on account of “actions to strengthen its regulations.” Indeed, it was the “most improved country in the theft ranking… improving its overall score by 7 points,” the NTI report said.

It is pertinent to mention here that Pakistan has an elaborate command and control mechanism with National Command Authority (NCA) at the top to ensure safety of Pakistan’s strategic arsenal which has never been questioned or undermined, directly or indirectly in the country.

Over the years, Pakistan has clearly shown willingness to work with the international community to streamline its export control regime.

However, officials in Pakistan claim that this cannot be said about India where unauthorized access to radioactive materials has been reported quite recurrently over the years. “The international community has not scrutinized New Delhi the way it does in our case even on mere allegations,” a Pakistani government official told the Diplomat requesting anonymity.

While Pakistan with 47 points was ranked 19 of 22 countries on the NTI index, India was ranked 20th with 41 points.

In May 2022, Indian police seized 7 kilograms of natural uranium and arrested two men in the western state of Maharashtra. A month later, police in Jharkhand arrested seven people and seized 6.4 kilograms of uranium in their possession.

The incident involving the firing of the BrahMos nuclear-capable missile into Pakistan’s territory on March 9, 2022, raised several worrying questions about India’s conduct as a nuclear state.

“International community should be concerned about the repeated incidents of nuclear and radioactive material theft in India,” the official said, stressing “Pakistan’s efforts to improve its nuclear safety regulations should be acknowledged.”