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Pakistan Expanding Nuclear Program

Pakistan's Foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam
Pakistan's Foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam speaks during a news conference at foreign ministry in Islamabad July 24, 2006. (Mian Khursheed - Reuters)

The completion of the first, 50-megawatt plutonium production reactor in Pakistan's central Khushab district was seen as a step toward modernizing the country's arsenal. The reactor is capable of producing about 10 kilograms of plutonium a year, enough for about two warheads.

Construction of the larger reactor at Khushab apparently began sometime in 2000. Satellite photos taken in the spring of 2005 showed the frame of a rectangular building enclosing what appeared to be the round metal shell of a large nuclear reactor. A year later, in April 2006, the roof of the structure was still incomplete, allowing an unobstructed view of the reactor's features.

"The fact that the roof is still off strikes me as a sign that Pakistan is neither rushing nor attempting to conceal," said Albright of the institute.

The slow pace of construction could suggest difficulties in obtaining parts, or simply that other key facilities for plutonium bomb-making are not yet in place, the institute report concludes. Pakistan would probably need to expand its capacity for producing heavy water for its new reactor, as well as its ability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract the plutonium, the report says.

After comparing a sequence of satellite photos, the institute analysts estimated that the new reactor was still "a few years" from completion. The diameter of the structure's metal shell suggests a very large reactor "operating in excess of 1,000 megawatts thermal," the report says.

"Such a reactor could produce over 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium per year, assuming it operates at full power a modest 220 days per year," it says. "At 4 to 5 kilograms of plutonium per weapon, this stock would allow the production of over 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year."

There was no immediate reaction to the report from the Bush administration. Albright said he shared his data with government nuclear analysts, who did not dispute his conclusions and appeared to already know about the new reactor.

"If there's an increasing risk of an arms race in South Asia, why hasn't this already been introduced into the debate?" Albright asked. He said the Pakistani development adds urgency to calls for a treaty halting the production of fissile material used in nuclear weapons.

"The United States needs to push more aggressively for a fissile material cut-off treaty, and so far it has not," he said.

Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, and researcher Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

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