WASHINGTON – In 1982, a Pakistani military C-130 left the western Chinese city of Urumqi with a highly unusual cargo: enough weapons-grade uranium for two atomic bombs, according to accounts written by the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, and provided to the Washington Post.
The uranium transfer in five stainless-steel boxes was part of a broad-ranging, secret nuclear deal approved years earlier by Mao Zedong and Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that culminated in an exceptional, deliberate act of proliferation by a nuclear power, according to the accounts by Khan, who is under house arrest in Pakistan.
U.S. officials say they have known about the transfer for decades and once privately confronted the Chinese – who denied it – but have never raised the issue in public or sought to impose direct sanctions on China for it.
According to Khan, the uranium cargo came with a blueprint for a simple weapon that China had already tested, supplying a virtual do-it-yourself kit that significantly speeded Pakistan’s bomb effort. The transfer also started a chain of proliferation: U.S. officials worry that Khan later shared related Chinese design information with Iran; in 2003, Libya confirmed obtaining it from Khan’s clandestine network.
Although Chinese officials have for a quarter-century denied helping any nation attain a nuclear capability, current and former U.S. officials say Khan’s accounts confirm the U.S. intelligence community’s long-held conclusion that China provided such assistance.
Khan’s exploits have been described in multiple books and public reports since British and U.S. intelligence services unmasked the deeds in 2003. But his own narratives – not yet seen by U.S. officials – provide fresh details about China’s aid to Pakistan and its reciprocal export to China of sensitive uranium-enrichment technology.
The Post obtained Khan’s detailed accounts from Simon Henderson, a former journalist at the Financial Times who is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and who has maintained correspondence with Khan.