It is spread over 400 acres near Nilore, some 25 kilometers from Islamabad. The neo-Mughal Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, with its serene and splendid isolation and spectacular mountain views, has been compared to the Taj Mahal. But unlike the Indian wonder, it draws no tourists or pilgrims, only physicists and engineers seeking some of the best laboratories the country has to offer.
Pinstech, Pakistan’s Nuclear Taj Mahal, celebrates its golden anniversary this year. It ranks among the most stunning physics complexes in the world. Designed by U.S. architect Edward Durell Stone, also responsible for the Aiwan-e-Sadr and Parliament buildings in Islamabad as well as WAPDA House in Lahore, Pinstech stands out as the unchallenged architectural advertisement for Atoms for Peace, the Cold War-era initiative that offered U.S. nuclear knowhow to developing countries which promised to pursue purely civilian nuclear programs.
Pakistan’s scientific and political leaders of the 1950s and 1960s readily grasped the significance of Pinstech as a symbol of national identity and a showcase of modernization for its new capital of Islamabad. Indeed, it was envisioned by Dr. Abdus Salam, who would win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, as a cornerstone for a self-confident and self-reliant Pakistani physics.
But what began with dependence evolved—with sufficient collective will, financial sacrifice, direct and redirected foreign aid, and some notorious black-market deals—into costly nuclear independence, in defiance of U.S. expectations. Long cloaked in secrecy, even in Pakistan itself, because of its close affiliation with the country’s nuclear weapons program, Pinstech nonetheless offers a powerful, if necessarily covert, expression of national aspiration and accomplishment in the face of sometimes daunting odds.
Salam, a tireless promoter of science as the key to securing Pakistan’s future, was instrumental in making Pinstech a reality. His credentials were unimpeachable. From 1960 to 1974, he was chief science advisor to Pakistani presidents. He lectured at Cambridge and at London’s Imperial College. In 1964, he founded the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) that now bears his name in Trieste, Italy. Salam had the connections, at home and abroad, to turn Pinstech into far more than just another Atoms-for-Peace reactor. Pinstech, he firmly held, would make Pakistan an invaluable member of the global science community.
It was on Salam’s recommendation that then-president Field Marshal Ayub Khan named I. H. Usmani as chief of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission in 1960. Together, Salam and Usmani quietly launched a determined effort to propel Pakistan into the nuclear age. To create a qualified cadre of Pakistani nuclear scientists and engineers, they enlisted the best university graduates they could find, about 50 a year, into a program that would train them abroad and give them strong financial and patriotic incentives to return home. After an orientation course in Lahore, the recruits went off to earn Ph.D.s or take up postdoctoral positions abroad. By 1961, PAEC had already placed 70 Pakistanis in training at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s laboratories and at their U.K. and Canadian counterparts.
To jumpstart research development, Salam wanted to secure a 5-megawatt swimming pool-type research reactor. He traveled to the U.S. in 1961 to meet with AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg. Characteristically bold, Salam spelled out his vision for Pakistan’s scientific and technological future and said he considered this research reactor a mere start. He urged Seaborg to provide Pakistan with capital funding for a full-size power reactor. In the meantime, he proposed that the U.S. provide direct assistance in putting the research reactor online, and establish a “close working relationship” between Pakistan’s new nuclear laboratory and one of the AEC’s laboratories, such as the one at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Pakistan ultimately got only the small research reactor from the AEC. Salam and Usmani also won $350,000 in funding from the Atoms for Peace program to support its construction. This was 10 percent of the estimated $3.5-million cost and would only be paid out by the U.S. once the reactor went critical.
Pinstech offers a powerful, if necessarily covert, expression of national aspiration and accomplishment in the face of sometimes daunting odds.
Salam and Usmani had big plans for the research reactor as the heart of Pinstech. With the new, modern capital of Pakistan nearing completion, and recognizing the importance of political visibility, Salam and Usmani decided that rather than expanding the modest Atomic Energy Center in Lahore, they would relocate PAEC’s main laboratories to Islamabad. They personally selected the 400-acre site, which was sufficiently isolated for safety and had stunning views of the mountains rising behind it.
The two scientists wanted built “an architecturally inspiring edifice that would motivate scientists.” The reactor and site design by U.S. firm AMF Atomics would not cut it. As broadly humanistic scholars with a deep appreciation for Islamic culture, Salam and Usmani sought an architect well-versed in the high modernist idiom appropriate for the nuclear age but who had a sense of Pakistan’s unique heritage. Edward Durell Stone—whose recently completed U.S. Embassy in New Delhi demonstrated sensitivity to the unique forms, structures and workmanship of traditional Mughal design—fit the bill neatly.
“There is not the slightest doubt,” said Usmani, “that among the top architects of the 20th century, Mr. Stone is one of those rare individuals who has imbibed a great deal from Mughal architecture and can develop a concept which can blend functional aspects with beauty at a very reasonable cost.” Salam and Usmani wanted the aesthetics of the new U.S. Embassy in India replicated but on a far grander scale, for a highly functional building that would “symbolize the aspirations of the nation” and have room for a thousand scientists and engineers, support staff, and administrators. Thus Stone set out to create what he dubbed “the future MIT of Pakistan.”
Stone put the reactor itself at the center of his design, literally and symbolically. The reactor’s swimming pool and reactor shielding had to meet AEC standards, of course, as did the hot cells, gamma and X-ray rooms and other special facilities. But Stone still found plenty of room for improvisation. Instead of exposed concrete, he finished the thin-shell dome with waterproof stucco in an ornamental arrangement of slender rounded arches capped by concentric rings of circles. He then outlined the arches and circles with embedded gold mosaic tiles. In the moat around the base of the reactor dome he arranged fountains and spotlights, to eye-catching effect. The slender tower, rising 250 feet, about twice the height of the dome, doubled as gravity-water storage tank and exhaust stack for the reactor. Its polished convex walls, with a repeating pattern of concrete blocks, flared upward at the top, in perfect contrast with the circular motifs of the dome, like a mosque and its minaret.
He elevated the entire complex on an enormous rectangular podium, with the reactor dome on the central axis and the soaring tower beside it. In the forecourt, facing west, Stone placed a large round pool and fountain, with a grand stairway leading up to the podium level. For an avowedly Muslim institute, having an unobstructed view toward Mecca at prayer time was imperative. Just beyond the entrance, a long, narrow water channel with a central row of fountains flowed toward the reactor, with paved pathways, gardens, and benches on either side. The fountains doubled as cooling jets for the air-conditioning system.
The three-story laboratories (including the basement level) were strung out along a grand quadrangle. Each research group—theoretical physics, nuclear physics, nuclear engineering, and radiobiology—had its own building, connected to adjoining ones by open breezeways. In keeping with Salam and Usmani’s wish that the “construction shall be first-class in every respect,” Stone specified Burma teak for all exposed woodwork, brass hardware, marble floors and walls in the lobbies, and even marble treads and risers for the staircases. The canteen, far more plush than the term suggests, had enormous hanging brass planters illuminated from below by spotlights, while the main lobby had starburst chandeliers and woven tapestries on the walls.
According to one of his confidants, Usmani paid “full attention to every detail in the construction and furnishing of the facility.” Stone visited Pakistan several times to study the site and to listen to Usmani’s concerns. Usmani in turn paid several calls on Stone’s studio in New York City, offering practical and aesthetic suggestions. During the early design phase, Usmani brought the Pakistani fellows from Oak Ridge to Stone’s office for their assessment.
In November 1961, Stone presented the model for the new institution to President Khan and others. On Dec. 22, 1965, the reactor went critical, with Salam himself there to see it. Six months after that, the reactor achieved its full 5-megawatt potential. Acknowledging the achievement, AEC’s Seaborg delivered the promised check for $350,000 during an official visit to Pakistan in 1967. In the end, Pinstech cost $6.6 million to construct, nearly double its original budget.
In 1969, Pinstech launched its reactor school. Malcolm Scott, of the University of Birmingham’s highly regarded course on nuclear reactors, came to Pinstech in the fall of 1970 and spent a year setting up a laboratory-teaching program and advising his Pakistani colleagues on curriculum revision. Scott made it clear that academic standards must be set sufficiently high so that “the Pinstech Reactor School should not be thought of as a place one goes to if it is not possible to gain admission to universities in developed countries.” Pinstech would train many of the scientists and engineers who would staff the reactors, laboratories and fuel-reprocessing plants that would transform Pakistan into a nuclear state.
A New Mission
The brief but costly Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 and India’s surprise nuclear test in 1974 gave Pinstech a new mission in an escalating arms race. Amid the turmoil and recrimination following a devastating military defeat and the loss of East Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took power as Pakistan’s president. Bhutto, long an unapologetic advocate of a Pakistani atomic bomb, had publicly stated that if India built a bomb, Pakistan would at any cost have to follow suit. One month into office, Bhutto called together Salam and Pakistan’s other leading nuclear scientists to advise him on establishing a top-secret atomic weapons program. At that meeting Bhutto replaced Usmani, whom he considered a ‘conscientious objector’ on nuclear weapons, with the hawkish Munir Khan as chief of the PAEC.
Salam, though still with the ICTP in Italy, organized the theoretical-physics group that performed the sophisticated calculations for the bomb and personally asked his former student and protégé Riazuddin to head it. War with India had tipped the balance in favor of nuclear weapons among a new generation of Pakistani scientists. By the 1970s, Pinstech had 350 nuclear scientists in training, 100 in the reactor school and the rest in other divisions—including nuclear engineering, nuclear chemistry, and nuclear materials—which had been relocated there one by one from other parts of the country. Together they were developing in Pakistan an essential critical mass of expertise in nuclear science and technology. A group of young radicals at Pinstech organized themselves as the “Association of Nuclear Engineers for a Nuclear Pakistan,” leaving no doubt as to their intention or determination on the matter.
It would have been difficult to repurpose Pinstech as a weapons laboratory, as it was never intended or designed to be a classified facility. Still, as “the main research and design center for the PAEC nuclear fuel cycle,” it did train and inspire a future “cadre of weaponeers” who would go on to man nuclear facilities across the country. Pinstech, with assistance from Belgian and French companies, built a pilot plant for reprocessing spent reactor fuel into plutonium. So while Pinstech formally considered itself an unclassified facility, it nonetheless became part of a growing network of weapons laboratories and factories. Something of an open secret, it was often referred to as “the Nilore bomb factory” by cab drivers. By the 1990s what had begun as a showcase for the peaceful atom and basic science had become an applied research complex with a staff of some 2,000.
The Price of Secrecy
After Israel bombed and heavily damaged Iraq’s Osirak reactor in June 1981, Pinstech, fearing a similar attack from India, hid its once gleaming concrete buildings under layers of olive drab. Even some of Pakistan’s generals considered this a crime of vandalism. Where the PAEC had once proudly published its annual list of scientists and engineers, the names and even the number of those names suddenly became classified. Secrecy carried a high opportunity cost. Salam always considered the greatest weakness of Pakistani physics to be its isolation from the international community. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons laboratories siphoned off and sequestered some of the nation’s best physics talent. For a poor country, building a “nuclear complex that dwarfs all other areas of science and technology,” as physicist Zia Mian explains, could only be done by neglecting “many of the basic political, social and economic needs of its citizens.”
Pinstech found itself trapped by the devil’s bargain characteristic of “nuclear nationalism” in the developing world. The visibility and accessibility essential for its original purpose could not survive the relentless demands of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons complex. So like the postage stamps heralding its opening in 1966 as “Pakistan’s First Atomic Reactor,” Pinstech’s idealistic founding vision slowly faded into memory.
Salam long sought to end Pakistan’s isolation from the rest of the scientific world. Pinstech could have been an important step forward, had it not embodied the paradox of Cold War physics, inspired by the promise of “atoms for peace” but driven by political circumstances to pursue atoms for war. Over its next half century, can Pinstech reemerge from the shadows of security and reclaim the role Salam once imagined for it, helping to lead the “renaissance of sciences in Islamic countries”?
Leslie is a history of science and technology professor at Johns Hopkins University. His new book, Heart of Glass: Corporate Architecture and Urban Renewal, is being published by the University of Toledo Press. This piece is an adaptation reproduced with the permission of the American Institute of Physics. From our Feb. 14-28, 2015, issue.