Mr Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Pakistan from 15-16 Feb 2023. Besides meeting the Prime Minister and other senior government functionaries he was also taken to various civil nuclear facilities to showcase Pakistan’s potential and explore further opportunities for collaboration with the IAEA.
The visit generated unnecessary controversy with some social media commentators alleging the government of ceding concessions on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability, which was factually incorrect. These politically motivated insinuations would not have found traction with a more open culture of nuclear discourse, which is necessary for creating awareness amongst the public and educating the next generation of scholars.
Mr Grossi was the not the first DG IAEA to visit Pakistan. His predecessor, My Yukia Amano had visited Pakistan twice during his tenure and was taken to all these facilities. During his two-days of stay in Pakistan, Grossi was taken to Chashma nuclear power plant (NPP), which is under the IAEA safeguards and has been generating electricity for the past many years with an excellent record of safety. DG IAEA also inaugurated newly furbished National Radiation Emergency Coordination Centre (NRECC), which was wrongly projected by few social media commentators as Pakistan’s nuclear command and control centre, due to lack of understanding of basic nuclear issues.
NRECC has no role in the Pakistan’s military capability, and it works under Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA). As part of the ‘Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident’ and ‘Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency’, NRECC is the designated Point of Contact (PoC) from Pakistan. During an emergency the NRECC would be responsible for sharing of information and coordinating assistance amongst various responders and the IAEA, to help mitigate the impact of nuclear or radiological radiation within the country, or in case any other state seeks assistance from Pakistan through the IAEA.
The timings of Grossi’s visit that coincided with the recently concluded talks between the government and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) may have provided some fuel to the politically motivated insinuations that Pakistan is being compelled to restrain its weapons developments. This is not true as IAEA has no mandate to discuss nuclear weapons program of any country.
IAEA is an inter-governmental agency working under the UN to promote safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Pakistan is one of the founding members and currently the member of its Board of Governors (BoGs), which makes consensus based decisions on all civil nuclear related issues. This mutually beneficial partnership has helped Pakistan to build its potential in the peaceful applications of nuclear technology in the field of agriculture, health, energy and other civilian applications.
With over six decades of working with the IAEA and a reasonably large civilian nuclear program, Pakistan is one of the few countries that is in a position to assist other countries in peaceful applications of nuclear technology. Several experts from Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) have contributed to the work of the IAEA, which is well recognized and appreciated by the international community.
Another possible reason for negative focus on DG IAEA’s visit could be due to his past credentials of being a ‘disarmament expert’. This has no relevance to his current assignment, but it remains a fact that during Grossi’s previous two consecutive terms as the Chair of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), he played a crucial role in building a case for India’s membership in the nuclear cartel. Despite voices by several countries to push for an objective and a non-discriminatory criterion for all non-NPT states, which could have included Pakistan besides India, Grossi remained reluctant. His past legacy may have led to the apprehension about his recent visit to Pakistan.
The unwarranted media speculations about DG IAEA’s routine visit were also due to lack of awareness amongst the general public. Over the past few years, the nuclear discourse in Pakistan has been excessively ‘securitized’ with limited input from academic institutions and think tanks. This is resulting into a knowledge gap amongst the next generation of scholars and the public, which has the potential to be exploited by ‘creative alarmists’ within and outside the country for their own personal and political interests.
Nuclear capability of Pakistan, understandably, has remained a sensitive issue due to the past history and the fact that there are several influential actors who remain wary of this potential. It is one of the very few issues in Pakistan that still enjoys consensus amongst all segments of the society, irrespective of their political or institutional affiliations. This public ownership needs to be strengthened by developing inclusive approaches and encouraging constructive debates in the academic institutions and thinks tanks. The current trend of discouraging scholars and academic institutions to engage in nuclear debates, both within and outside the country, is not likely to be helpful, and could lead to more misperceptions about Pakistan’s nuclear program besides discouraging the next generation of scholars to indulge in nuclear learning.
Pakistan is an important nuclear state with enormous domestic and external challenges. To deal with these challenges it is necessary to recognize the significance of academia and opinion makers who play a major role in addressing misperceptions. Alienating this important segment from the nuclear discourse and subletting to the select few would widen the gap in nuclear learning. The existing think tanks working on these issues also need to move beyond their narrow focus on advocacy. This is only possible if experts with relevant experience and qualification are hired with proven ability for creative thinking, and who are well conversant with the ongoing international debates.
In sum, to avoid similar controversies as was witnessed during the visit of DG IAEA, it is important that nuclear discourse in the country is de-securitized and made more inclusive and participatory. The nation owns and takes pride in Pakistan’s nuclear capability, and would defend this at all levels, provided they are given the sense of ownership and the freedom to engage in constructive discussions and debates on issues that are less sensitive, but essential to create public awareness and academic inquiries.
Very pertinent analysis flagging the need to instill an inclusive nuclear discourse in Pakistan. To de- securitize the securitized nuclear discourse requires a proactive approach by all the stakeholders across the board. Academia, think-tanks and media must initiate a dialogue witin and beyond for understanding broadened parameters of the nuclear discourse in our case.
Indeed, broadening the security discourse is as important as generating an informed debate about these issues, which are both narrowing down in the current scenario; giving way to insinuations and conspiracy theories to flourish.