The word "nuclear" has a way of quickening people's pulse. The recent earthquake in Japan would have been just another earthquake, but the fact that it set off a fire at the world's most powerful nuclear reactor, which subsequently leaked radioactive material, grabbed the headlines.
Pakistan, which has recently experienced a metaphorical earthquake in the form of Islamist terror, would also barely merit a mention on the inside pages if it were not for that country's nuclear arsenal.
The recent terrorist attack in Pakistan's northwest and the standoff at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad came not merely as another violent assault on President Pervez Musharraf's government. Pundits were immediately set to thinking about possible repercussions well beyond South Asia.
Other nuclear dangers, namely, those posed by Iran and North Korea, are better known and appear more alarming. Nevertheless, it will take six-eight years for Iran to develop its nukes, whatever its intentions might be, and North Korea's prospects are even more vague. Pakistan, on the other hand, is a nuclear state even now, with as many as 40 weapons and a stock of ballistic missiles. It carried out its first successful nuclear test in 1998.
Pakistan will never clash with Russia in a nuclear conflict - it is not on a suicide mission. True, Pakistani missiles can reach Russia, but it would be paranoid to be afraid of them. Russia could be contaminated if Pakistan clashed with India, but the chance of a nuclear clash between them is negligible.
What if extremists come to power in Pakistan who prefer nuclear jihad to sane policies? That is just as improbable. First, however hotly such people might call on others to carry out acts of suicide terrorism, they are in no hurry to set an example.
Second, Pakistan has a powerful army drilled and organized along Western lines, which keeps the radical clergy in check and will never let fanatics make major policy decisions, especially nuclear ones-suffice it to recall the tough action at the Lal Masjid.
Can the Pakistani authorities tolerate nukes smuggled out in secret or sold to other countries or non-state actors? That is hardly probable, with the danger it implies for Pakistan. The world's leading powers - terrorists' main targets - will surely launch an armed intervention if things take that turn.
Is there any chance of Pakistani nukes being stolen or accidentally blowing up? Here, the answer is not so clear - the world knows too little about the Pakistani arsenal's storage and maintenance. We have nothing but the reassurances repeatedly coming from the country's leaders.
It is essential to rule out the possibility of nuclear weapons blowing up by accident or being tampered with demand. Otherwise, they will be suicidal weapons and targets for terrorists.
The developed nuclear countries have always paid tremendous attention to safety, with sophisticated codes, safety interlocks, and so on, leaving no chance of using stolen weapons or obtaining fissionable substances from them. A unified comprehensive safety network leaves nothing to chance in manufacturing, transporting and stockpiling nuclear arms, to say nothing of decision-making on their use.
What's the situation in Pakistan? That is the crucial question as we assess its nuclear threat. It took the developed countries decades and huge amounts of money to get their safety system going. Such systems demand the latest technologies in many fields of science and production. Pakistan is not known, with any certainty, to possess such technologies.
Pakistan's highly enriched uranium weapons are rather simple to handle. So, if stolen, their uranium could be used in homemade explosive devices.
All of this demands clarity and decisions that take into account not only all the hazards mentioned above but also sensitive aspects of Pakistani security, international law, and specific regional factors, including the dispute with India.
The starting point lies where Pakistani interests coincide with those of the world - which means the technical safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal must be guaranteed.
(The author is a researcher at the Moscow Institute of Physical Engineering.)