The ‘nuclear’ life of AQ Khan

By: News Desk      Published: 11:29 AM, 10 Oct, 2021
The ‘nuclear’ life of AQ Khan
File photo.

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was a famous Pakistani nuclear scientist and a metallurgical engineer. He was widely regarded as the founder of gas-centrifuge enrichment technology for Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent programme. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme was a source of extreme national pride. As its “father”, AQ Khan, who headed Pakistan’s nuclear programme for some 25 years, was considered a national hero.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, known as AQ Khan, was born on April 1, 1936 and died on October 10, 2021. He was a Pakistani nuclear physicist and metallurgical engineer who was colloquially known as the "father of Pakistan's atomic weapons programme". Though, AQ Khan was celebrated in Pakistan for bringing balance to the South Asian region after India's nuclear tests; he was also noted for his scientific ability. 

AQ Khan had migrated to Pakistan from India in 1951 and was educated in Western Europe's technical universities from metallurgical engineering department where he pioneered studies in phase transitions of metallic alloys, uranium metallurgy, and isotope separation based on gas centrifuges. After learning of India's 'Smiling Buddha' nuclear test in 1974, AQ Khan joined his nation's clandestine efforts to develop atomic weapons when he founded the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in 1976, and was both its chief scientist and director for many years. 

In January 2004, AQ Khan was subjected to a debriefing by the Musharraf administration over evidence of nuclear proliferation handed to them by the Bush administration of the United States. Khan admitted his role in running the proliferation network – only to retract his statements in later years when he levelled accusations at President Musharraf over the controversy in 2008. 

AQ Khan was accused of selling nuclear secrets illegally and Khan has been under house arrest since 2004 when he confessed to the charges and was pardoned by then-President Gen Pervez Musharraf. After years of house arrest, AQ Khan successfully filed a lawsuit against the Federal Government of Pakistan at the Islamabad High Court whose verdict declared his debriefing unconstitutional and freed him on 6 February 2009.

Early life and work

Abdul Qadeer Khan was born on 1 April 1936 in Bhopal, a city then in the erstwhile British Indian princely state of Bhopal. His family is of Orakzai (a Pashtun tribe) origin. His father, Abdul Ghafoor, was a schoolteacher who once worked for the Ministry of Education, and his mother, Zulekha, was a housewife with a very religious mind. His older siblings, along with other family members, had emigrated to Pakistan during the bloody partition of the Subcontinent (splitting off the independent state of Pakistan) in 1947, who would often write to Khan's parents about the new life they had found in Pakistan.

After his matriculation from a local school in Bhopal, in 1952 Khan emigrated from India to Pakistan on the Sind Mail train, partly due to the reservation politics  at that time, and religious violence in India during his youth had left an indelible impression on his world view. Upon settling in Karachi with his family, AQ Khan briefly attended the DJ Science College before transferring to the University of Karachi where he graduated in 1956 with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in physics with a concentration on solid-state physics. 

From 1956 to 1959, Khan was employed by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (city government) as an Inspector of weights and measures, and applied for a scholarship that allowed him to study in West Germany. In 1961, Khan departed for West Germany to study material science at the Technical University in West Berlin where he academically excelled in courses in metallurgy, but left West Berlin when he switched to the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands in 1965. In 1967, Khan obtained an engineer's degree in Materials Technology – an equivalent to a Master of Science (MS) offered in English-speaking nations such as Pakistan – and joined the doctoral programme in metallurgical engineering at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

He worked under Belgian professor, Martin J. Brabers at Leuven University, who supervised his doctoral thesis which Khan successfully defended, and graduated with a DEng in metallurgical engineering in 1972. His thesis included fundamental work on martensite and its extended industrial applications in the field of graphene morphology. The same year, Khan joined the Physics Dynamics Research Laboratory (or in Dutch: FDO), an engineering firm based in Amsterdam, from Brabers's recommendation. The FDO was a subcontractor for the Urenco Group which was operating a uranium enrichment plant in Almelo and employed gaseous centrifuge method to assure a supply of nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants in the Netherlands.

Soon after, Khan left FDO when Urenco offered him a senior technical position, initially conducting studies on the uranium metallurgy.  

Uranium enrichment is an extremely difficult process because uranium in its natural state only comprises just 0.71% of uranium-235 (U235), which is a fissile material, 99.3% of uranium-238 (U238), which is non-fissile, and 0.0055% of uranium-234 (U234), a daughter product which is also a non-fissile. The Urenco Group utilized the Zippe-type of centrifugal method to electromagnetically separate the isotopes U234, U235, and U238 from sublimed raw uranium by rotating the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas at up to ~100,000 revolutions per minute (rpm).  Khan, whose work was based on physical metallurgy of the uranium metal,  eventually dedicated his investigations to improving the efficiency of the centrifuges by 1973–74.  

Scientific career in Pakistan

Upon learning of India's surprise nuclear test, 'Smiling Buddha' in May 1974, Khan wanted to contribute to efforts to build an atomic bomb and met with officials at the Pakistani Embassy in The Hague, who dissuaded him by saying it was "hard to find" a job in PAEC as a "metallurgist". In August 1974, Khan wrote a letter which went unnoticed, but he directed another letter through the Pakistani ambassador to the Prime Minister's Secretariat in September 1974.  

Unbeknownst to Khan, his nation's scientists were already working towards feasibility of the atomic bomb under a secretive crash weapons programme since 20 January 1972 that was being directed by Munir Ahmad Khan, a reactor physicist, which calls into question of his "father-of" claim. After reading his letter, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had his military secretary run a security check on Khan, who was unknown at that time, for verification and asked PAEC to dispatch a team under Bashiruddin Mahmood that met Khan at his family home in Almelo and directed Bhutto's letter to meet him in Islamabad.

Upon arriving in December 1974, Khan took a taxi straight to the Prime Minister's Secretariat. He met with Prime Minister Bhutto in the presence of Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Agha Shahi, and Mubashir Hassan where he explained the significance of highly enriched uranium with the meeting ending with Bhutto's remark: "He seems to make sense". 

The next day, Khan met with Munir Ahmad and other senior scientists where he focused the discussion on production of highly enriched uranium (HEU), against weapon-grade plutonium, and explained to Bhutto why he thought the idea of "plutonium" would not work.

Later, Khan was advised by several officials in the Bhutto administration to remain in the Netherlands to learn more about centrifuge technology but continue to provide consultation on the Project-706 enrichment programme led by Mahmood.  By December 1975, Khan was given a transfer to a less sensitive section when Urenco Group became suspicious of his indiscreet open sessions with Mahmood to instruct him on centrifuge technology. Khan began to fear for his safety in the Netherlands, ultimately insisting on returning home.

Khan Research Laboratories and atomic bomb programme

In April 1976, Khan joined the atomic bomb programme and became part of the enrichment division, initially collaborating with Khalil Qureshi – a physical chemist. Calculations performed by him were valuable contributions to centrifuges and a vital link to nuclear weapon research but continue to push for his ideas for feasibility of weapon-grade uranium even though it had a low priority, with most efforts still aimed to produce military-grade plutonium. Because of his interest in uranium metallurgy and his frustration at having been passed over for director of the uranium division (the job was instead given to Bashiruddin Mahmood), Khan refused to engage in further calculations and caused tensions with other researchers.  Khan became highly unsatisfied and bored with the research led by Mahmood – finally, he submitted a critical report to Bhutto, in which he explained that the "enrichment programme" was nowhere near success.

Upon reviewing the report, Bhutto sensed a great danger as the scientists were split between military-grade uranium and plutonium and informed Khan to take over the enrichment division from Mahmood who separated the programme from PAEC by founding the Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL).  The ERL functioned directly under the Army's Corps of Engineers, with Khan being its chief scientist, and the army engineers located the national site at isolated lands in Kahuta for the enrichment programme as ideal site for preventing accidents.

The PAEC did not forgo their electromagnetic isotope separation programme, and a parallel programme was led by GD Alam at the Air Research Laboratories (ARL) located at Chaklala Air Force Base, even though Alam had not seen a centrifuge, and only had a rudimentary knowledge of the Manhattan Project. During this time, Alam accomplished a great feat by perfectly balancing the rotation of the first generation of centrifuge to ~30,000 rpm and was immediately dispatch to ERL which was suffering from many setbacks in setting up its own programme under Khan's direction based on centrifuge technology dependent on Urenco's methods.  Khan eventually committed to work on problems involving the differential equations concerning the rotation around fixed axis to perfectly balance the machine under influence of gravity and the design of first generation of centrifuges became functional after Khan and Alam succeeded in separating the 235U and 238U isotopes from raw natural uranium. 

In the military circles, Khan's scientific ability was well recognized and was often known with his moniker "Centrifuge Khan"  and the national laboratory was renamed after him upon the visit of President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1983. In spite of his role, Khan was never in charge of the actual designs of the nuclear devices, their calculations, and eventual weapons testing which remained under the directorship of Munir Ahmad Khan and the PAEC. 

During the timeline of the bomb programme, Khan published papers on analytical mechanics of balancing of rotating masses and thermodynamics with mathematical rigor to compete, but still failed to impress his fellow theorists at PAEC, generally in the physics community. In later years, Khan became a staunch critic of Munir Khan's research in physics, and on many occasions tried unsuccessfully to belittle Munir Khan's role in the atomic bomb projects.[37] Their scientific rivalry became public and widely popular in the physics community and seminars held in the country over the years. 

Nuclear tests: Chagai-I

Many of his theorists were unsure that military-grade uranium would be feasible on time without the centrifuges, since Alam had notified PAEC that the "blueprints were incomplete" and "lacked the scientific information needed even for the basic gas-centrifuges."  Calculations by Tasneem Shah, and confirmed by Alam, showed that Khan's earlier estimation of the quantity of uranium needing enrichment for the production of weapon-grade uranium was possible, even with the small number of centrifuges deployed.  

Khan stole the designs of the centrifuges from Urenco Group. However, they were riddled with serious technical errors, and while he bought some components for analysis, they were broken pieces, making them useless for quick assembly of a centrifuge. Its separative work unit (SWU) rate was extremely low, so that it would have to be rotated for thousands of RPMs at the cost of millions of taxpayers money, Alam maintained. Though Khan's knowledge of copper metallurgy greatly aided the innovation of centrifuges, it was the calculations and validation that came from his team of fellow theorists, including mathematician Tasneem Shah and Alam, who solved the differential equations concerning rotation around a fixed axis under the influence of gravity, which led Khan to come up with the innovative centrifuge designs. 

Scientists have claimed that Khan would have never gotten any closer to success without the assistance of Alam and others. The issue is controversial;  Khan maintained to his biographer that when it came to defending the centrifuge approach and really putting work into it, both Shah and Alam refused. 

Khan was also very critical of PAEC's concentrated efforts towards developing a plutonium 'implosion-type' nuclear devices and provided strong advocacy for the relatively simple 'Gun-type' device that only had to work with high-enriched uranium— a design concept of gun-type device he eventually submitted to Ministry of Energy (MoE) and Ministry of Defence (MoD). Khan downplayed the importance of plutonium despite many of the theorists maintaining that "plutonium and the fuel cycle has its significance", and he insisted on the uranium route to the Bhutto administration when France's offer for an extraction plant was in the offing.

Though he had helped to come up with the centrifuge designs, and had been a long-time proponent of the concept, Khan was not chosen to head the development project to test his nation's first nuclear-weapons (his reputation of a thorny personality likely played a role in this) after India conducted its series of nuclear tests, 'Pokhran-II' in 1998. Intervention by the Chairman Joint Chiefs, General Jehangir Karamat, allowed Khan to be a participant and eyewitness his nation's first nuclear test, 'Chagai-I' in 1998. At a news conference, Khan confirmed the testing of the boosted fission devices while stating that it was KRL's highly enriched uranium (HEU) that was used in the detonation of Pakistan's first nuclear devices on 28 May 1998.

Many of Khan's colleagues were irritated that he seemed to enjoy taking full credit for something he had only a small part in, and in response, he authored an article, Torch-Bearers, emphasising that he was not alone in the weapon's development. He made an attempt to work on the Teller–Ulam design for the hydrogen bomb, but the military strategists had objected to the idea as it went against the government's policy of minimum credible deterrence.

Court controversy and objections

In 1979, the Dutch government eventually probed Khan on suspicion of nuclear espionage but he was not prosecuted due to lack of evidence, though it did file a criminal complaint against him in a local court in Amsterdam, which sentenced him in absentia in 1985 to four years in prison. Upon learning of the sentence, Khan filed an appeal through his attorney, SM Zafar, who teamed up with the administration of Leuven University, and successfully argued that the technical information requested by Khan was commonly found and taught in undergraduate and doctoral physics at the university— the court exonerated Khan by overturning his sentence on a legal technicality. Reacting to the suspicions of espionage, Khan stressed that: "I had requested for it as we had no library of our own at KRL, at that time. All the research work [at Kahuta] was the result of our innovation and struggle. We did not receive any technical 'know-how' from abroad, but we cannot reject the use of books, magazines, and research papers in this connection." 

In 1979, the Zia administration, which was making an effort to keep their nuclear capability discreet to avoid pressure from the Reagan administration of the United States (US), nearly lost its patience with Khan when he reportedly attempted to meet with local journalist to announce the existence of the enrichment programme.  During the Indian Operation Brasstacks military exercise in 1987, Khan gave another interview to local press and stated: the Americans had been well aware of the success of the atomic quest of Pakistan, allegedly confirming the speculation of technology export. At both instances, the Zia administration sharply denied Khan's statement and President Zia met with Khan and used a "tough tone", promising Khan severe repercussions had he not retracted all of his statements, which Khan immediately did.

In 1996, Khan again appeared on his country's news channels and maintained that "at no stage was the program of producing 90% weapons-grade enriched uranium ever stopped", despite Benazir Bhutto's administration reaching an understanding with the Clinton administration to cap the programme to 3% enrichment in 1990.

North Korea, Iran and Libya

The centrifuges removed from Libya by the United States as seen in the image were developed by Khan, known as P1, when he worked for Urenco Group in the 1970s. 

The innovation and improved designs of centrifuges were marked as classified for export restriction by the Pakistan government, though Khan was still in possession of earlier designs of centrifuges from when he worked for Urenco Group in the 1970s.  In 1990, the United States alleged that highly sensitive information was being exported to North Korea in exchange for rocket engines. On multiple occasions, Khan levelled accusations against Benazir Bhutto's administration of providing secret enrichment information, on a compact disc (CD), to North Korea; these accusations were denied by Benazir Bhutto's staff and military personnel.

Between 1987 and 1989, Khan secretly leaked knowledge of centrifuges to Iran without notifying the Pakistan Government, although this issue is a subject of political controversy. In 2003, the European Union pressured Iran to accept tougher inspections of its nuclear programme and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed an enrichment facility in the city of Natanz, Iran, utilizing gas centrifuges based on the designs and methods used by Urenco Group. The IAEA inspectors quickly identified the centrifuges as P-1 types, which had been obtained "from a foreign intermediary in 1989", and the Iranian negotiators turned over the names of their suppliers, which identified Khan as one of them.

In 2003, Libya negotiated with the United States to roll back its nuclear programme to have economic sanctions lifted, effected by the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, and shipped centrifuges to the United States that were identified as P-1 models by the American inspectors. Ultimately, the Bush administration launched its investigation of Khan, focusing on his personal role, when Libya handed over a list of its suppliers.

Govt work, academia, and political advocacy

Khan's strong advocacy for nuclear sharing of technology eventually led to his ostracization by much of the scientific community, but Khan was still quite welcome in his country's political and military circles. After leaving the directorship of the Khan Research Laboratories in 2001, Khan briefly joined the Musharraf administration as a policy adviser on science and technology on a request from President Musharraf. In this capacity, Khan promoted increased defence spending on his nation's missile programme to counter the perceived threats from the Indian missile programme and advised the Musharraf administration on space policy. He presented the idea of using the Ghauri missile system as an expendable launch system to launch satellites into space.

At the height of the proliferation controversy in 2007, Khan was paid tribute by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on state television while commenting in the last part of his speech, Aziz stressed: "The services of [nuclear] scientist ... Dr. [Abdul] Qadeer Khan are "unforgettable" for the country".

In the 1990s, Khan secured a fellowship with the Pakistan Academy of Sciences— he served as its president in 1996–97. Khan published two books on material science and started publishing his articles from KRL in the 1980s. Gopal S. Upadhyaya, an Indian metallurgist who attended Khan's conference and met him along with Kuldip Nayar, reportedly described him as: Khan was a proud Pakistani who wanted to show the world that scientists from Pakistan are inferior to no one in the world. Khan also served as project director of Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology and briefly tenured as professor of physics before joining the faculty of the Hamdard University; he remains on the board of directors of the university. Later, Khan helped established the AQ Khan Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at Karachi University. 

In 2012, Khan announced the forming of a conservative political advocacy group, 'Tehreek-e-Tahaffuz-e-Pakistan' ('Movement for the Protection of Pakistan'), which was dissolved in 2013. 


During his time in the atomic bomb project, Khan pioneered research in the thermal quantum field theory and condensed matter physics, while he co-authored articles on chemical reactions of the highly unstable isotope particles in the controlled physical system. He maintained his stance of the use of controversial technological solutions to both military and civilian problems, including the use of military technologies for civilian welfare. Khan also remained a vigorous advocate for a nuclear testing programme and defence strength through nuclear weapons. He has justified Pakistan's nuclear deterrence programme as sparing his country the fate of Iraq or Libya. In an interview in 2011, Khan maintained his stance on peace through strength and vigorously defended the nuclear weapons programme as part of the deterrence policy: 

Pakistan's motivation for nuclear weapons arose from a need to prevent "nuclear blackmail" by India. Had Iraq and Libya been nuclear powers, they wouldn't have been destroyed in the way we have seen recently. ... If (Pakistan) had an [atomic] capability before 1971, we [Pakistanis] would not have lost half of our country after a disgraceful defeat.

— Abdul Qadeer Khan, statement on 16 May 2011, published in Newsweek. 

While Khan hads been bestowed with many medals and honours by the federal government and universities in Pakistan, Khan also remained the only citizen of Pakistan to have honoured twice with Nishan-e-Imtiaz. 

Nishan-e-Imtiaz (1999)

Nishan-e-Imtiaz (1996)

Hilal-e-Imtiaz (1989)

Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology[68]

60 Gold medal from universities in the country.[68]

University of Karachi[68]

Baqai Medical University[79]

Hamdard University[68]

Gomal University[68]

University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore[68]



·  Khan, Abdul Qadeer (1972). Advances in Physical Metallurgy (in English, German, and Dutch). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier Press. 

·  Khan, Abdul Qadeer (1983). Metallurgical Thermodynamics and Kinetics (in English, German, and Dutch). Islamabad, Pakistan: The Proceedings of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences. 

·  Khan, Abdul Qadeer; Hussain, Syed Shabbir; Kamran, Mujahid (1997). Dr. A.Q. Khan on science and education. Islamabad, Pakistan: Sang-e-Meel Publications. ISBN 978-969-35-0821-5.–