By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; A11
The Bush administration acknowledged yesterday that it had long known about Pakistan's plans to build a large plutonium-production reactor, but it said the White House was working to dissuade Pakistan from using the plant to expand its nuclear arsenal.
"We discourage military use of the facility," White House spokesman Tony Snow said of a powerful heavy-water reactor under construction at Pakistan's Khushab nuclear site in Punjab state.
The reactor, which reportedly will be capable of producing enough plutonium for as many as 50 bombs each year, was brought to light on Sunday by independent analysts who spotted the partially completed plant in commercial-satellite photos. Snow said the administration had "known of these plans for some time."
The acknowledgment came as arms-control experts and some in Congress expressed alarm about a possible escalation of South Asia's arms race. Some also sharply criticized the administration for failing to disclose the existence of a facility that could influence an upcoming congressional debate over U.S. nuclear policy toward India and Pakistan.
"If either India or Pakistan starts increasing its nuclear arsenal, the other side will respond in kind," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), co-chairman of a House bipartisan task force on nonproliferation. "The Bush administration's proposed nuclear deal with India is making that much more likely."
That proposal would allow the United States to share civilian nuclear technology with India.
Construction of the reactor in Pakistan began as early as 2000, and the plant is still several years from completion, according to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based nonprofit group that produces technical assessments of nuclear weapons facilities. Based on a study of satellite photos, the group estimated the new reactor to have an operating capacity of 1,000 megawatts thermal and an annual yield of at least 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium.
A small reactor already operating at the Khushab site is capable of producing about 10 kilograms of plutonium a year, according to the analysis.
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry, reacting to a Washington Post article about the new plant, neither disputed the report nor offered specifics about the reactor. Pakistani officials acknowledged the nation's long-term ambition to expand its nuclear power infrastructure and modernize its nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is thought to possess up to 50 nuclear bombs, all based on designs that use highly enriched uranium and generally are more cumbersome than plutonium devices.
"This ought to be no revelation to anyone, because Pakistan is a nuclear-weapons state," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said at a news conference in Islamabad, according to the Associated Press.
Aslam said Pakistan's leaders "do not want an arms race in this region," but she noted that Pakistan was not the first nation in South Asia to test nuclear weapons. Rival India first tested a nuclear device in 1974 and currently has about 30 plutonium-based warheads.
Weapons experts worried yesterday that Pakistan's expanded nuclear capabilities would lead countries in the region -- other than India -- to follow suit.
"There are makings of a vigorous competition in fissile material production in South Asia -- between India and Pakistan in the first instance but also China as well," said Robert Einhorn, formerly the State Department's chief nonproliferation official and now a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "It would be one thing if we were talking just about well-secured nuclear bombs. A larger concern is the greater amounts of fissile material, which create more opportunities for terrorists to get their hands on it."
Henry D. Sokolski, the Defense Department's top nonproliferation official during the George H.W. Bush administration, said he was most surprised by the way news of the reactor in Pakistan became known.
"What is baffling is that this information -- which was surely information that our own intelligence agencies had -- was kept from Congress," said Sokolski, now director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. "We lack imagination if we think that this is no big deal."