Vienna, March 15 (Reuters): Pakistan has developed new illicit channels to upgrade its nuclear weapons programme, despite efforts by the UN atomic watchdog to shut down all illegal procurement avenues, diplomats and nuclear experts said.
Western diplomats familiar with an investigation of the nuclear black market by the UN's Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said this news was disturbing.
While Pakistan appeared to be shopping for its own needs, the existence of some nuclear black market channels meant there were still ways for rogue states or terrorist groups to acquire technology that could be used in atomic weapons, they said.
'General procurement efforts (by Pakistan) are going on. It is a determined effort,' a diplomat from a member of the 44-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) said on condition of anonymity.
Nuclear experts said these channels involved new middlemen who had not played a role in earlier deals which came to light last year. 'These are not the same people. They're new, which is worrying,' said one western diplomat. Pakistan is subject to sanctions against its atomic arms programme as it has not signed the 1968 global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Pakistan first successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 1998 and remains under a strict embargo by the NSG, whose members include the world's major producers of nuclear-related equipment, such as the US, Russia and China.
A diplomat from another NSG country that is a producer of technology usable in weapons programmes said his country's customs agents were not surprised. 'Our people are well aware of Pakistan's efforts to upgrade its centrifuge programme.'
Asked if Pakistan was using the black market to upgrade its facilities, foreign ministry spokesman Jalil Abbas Jilani said in Islamabad: 'To be honest, I don't have an update on that.'
'Pakistan's nuclear capability is a reality which has to be reconciled, and obviously in order to maintain its capability Pakistan would make all the preparations,' he added.
The black market will be a major topic of discussion at the NPT review conference in New York in May, where IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei hopes to rally support for a plan to patch up loopholes in the pact against the spread of nuclear arms. Being outside the NPT, like India, meant Pakistan had to buy on the sly.
This was why Abdul Qadeer Khan, the disgraced scientist who built Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, set up a clandestine procurement network with front companies and middlemen who duped manufacturers across the globe into thinking purchases of sensitive dual-use items were intended for civilian purposes.
Khan later used this network to supply Iran, which says its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful.