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Pakistani nuclear proliferation: The mysteries of an incident in the Karachi port area

2 May 2020 Expertises   169700  

Roland Jacquard

The international media is so focused on the corona virus epidemic that is spreading rapidly across the world, that a small incident in the Pakistani port city of Karachi went almost unnoticed. The incident took place near the port area in Karachi on the night of February 16, where it was reported that due to a gas leak at least 14 people were killed and several hundred hospitalised with chest pains, burning eyes and breathing difficulties. The Sindh government, thereafter, also ordered the evacuation of the coastal residential area of Keamari , which was worst affected.

By Roland Jacquard
Writer and consultant, Chairman of Roland Jacquard Global Security Consulting (RJGSC)

It has been three weeks since the incident, but the local provincial government in Sindh has failed to explain the reason for the incident. Varied possibilities and conflicting explanations have emerged from within the government agencies. The administrative in­ charge of Karachi city, Commissioner lftikhar Shallwani, stated that the probable cause of the toxic gas could have been due to the spread of soybean dust or similar substance during the offloading of a container from a ship. Meanwhile, an initial investigation in the incident by the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency showed that the incident had been caused by hydrogen sulphide emissions from the terminal storing crude oil and petroleum. This report was later contested by the Sindh Chemical Science Laboratory who were of the opinion that the leak was caused by the release of methyl bromide, used in the fumigation of large vessels at the port. Days later, the Karachi Port Trust issued a press statement informing that after checking of all terminals and berths, it was confirmed that there was no gas or chemical leakage at the port.

So what actually caused death and injury to the hundreds of citizens of this Pakistani city and why has the Pakistani government failed to speak in one voice on this. On February 25, the police claimed to have arrested those involved in the gas leak. No names of the suspected perpetrators were released.

Significantly, some observers have pointed out that Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation (CNEIC) have been in the process of transporting nuclear fuel assemblies for the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant. While the CNEIC would be responsible for fuel transportation from Shanghai to Karachi port, PAEC would be in-charge of further movement of the fuel to the nuclear power plant site. The PAEC would be using Karachi Port for the delivery of the nuclear fuel assemblies. The Karachi Nuclear Plant is located 10 kms away from the Keamari area and therefore, it has been suspected that the toxic leak may have taken place due to a leakage during the nuclear fuel transportation.

Earlier, 5 Pakistani businessmen were indicted (Jan 2020) in the US for operating an international network of front companies to export US-origin products to Pakistan for use in that country’s nuclear program. The five were accused of operating a front company called ‘Business World’ in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and charged with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Export Control Reform Act. US Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division John Demers informed that ‘The defendants smuggled US origin goods to entities that have been designated for years as threats to US national security for their ties to Pakistan’s weapons ties to Pakistan’s weapons programme. The men transported the goods to Pakistan’s Advanced Engineering

Research Organization (AERO) and the PAEC without export licenses, according to the indictment. It identified 38 illegal nuclear-related exports from 29 U.S. companies to Pakistan between September 2014 and October 2019.

The two Pakistani entities – AERO and PAEC – are on the US Commerce Department’s list of companies required to hold export licenses because their activities are deemed contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests. PAEC was added to the list in 1998 after Pakistan carried out a series of underground nuclear tests in response to Indian nuclear tests. AERO was included in 2014 after the US found that it had used intermediaries and front companies to acquire goods for Pakistan’s cruise missile and strategic unmanned aerial vehicle programs, the Justice Department said.

These incidents highlight the dangers linked to nuclear proliferation and more particularly to the mismanagement of atomic technology by countries like Pakistan (or even Iran), which harbor nuclear ambitions, with the complicity of China or having use of international trafficking which constitutes a violation of global laws to combat nuclear proliferation.