Pakistani Reactor Not as Significant As Was Reported, Administration Says

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2006

Days after it confirmed the existence of a partially completed heavy-water reactor in central Pakistan, the administration took steps this week to play down the significance of the project, saying the new facility will produce far less plutonium than initial reports indicated.

That stance puts the administration in conflict with independent nuclear experts over that crucial question and what the answer means for South Asia's nuclear arms race.

The nuclear analysts who brought the reactor to light stood by their conclusion that the reactor would dramatically boost Pakistan's capacity to develop plutonium-based warheads. Pakistan is believed to possess fewer than 50 warheads, all of them based on highly enriched uranium. Uranium-based bombs are heavier and harder to mount on missiles.

"We are confident that this is a large reactor vessel," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington nonprofit group that assesses the capabilities and weapons stockpiles of nuclear states.

The ISIS report, described in a July 24 Washington Post report, was based on an assessment of satellite photos of the reactor, which is inside a Pakistani nuclear complex that already has a small reactor for producing plutonium. The scale of the facility under construction suggests a powerful heavy-water reactor with a capacity of at least 1,000 megawatts thermal and a maximum annual plutonium output of 200 kilograms, enough for 40 to 50 warheads, ISIS said.

The report warned of the possibility of a new round of nuclear competition between Pakistan and India, which both possess the bomb.

Administration officials, citing government intelligence and nuclear experts, said the ISIS estimate was off the mark. They offered few specifics, saying the government's analysis remained classified.

"The reactor will be over 10 times less capable" than the ISIS report's estimates, State Department spokesman Edgar Matthews said. Matthews acknowledged that Pakistan appears to be diversifying its ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, and noted that the new reactor would not be subject to international monitoring and inspection.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the Pakistani government echoed the administration's position, saying the reactor's annual output would be significantly less than 200 kilograms of plutonium.

"The capacity has been highly exaggerated," said M. Akram Shaheedi, press minister for Pakistan Embassy. He acknowledged that Pakistan is was modernizing its nuclear program to "maintain a credible nuclear deterrent."

In a statement posted on the group's Web site, ISIS defended its analysis and offered additional detail on how it reached its conclusions. A key factor, the group said, was the size of the reactor vessel under construction, which ISIS described as much larger than the modest plutonium-production reactor Pakistan has operated since 1998.

ISIS said the new reactor is comparable in size to reactor vessels at the Savannah River nuclear site, which for decades produced plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Those large reactors began operation in the 1950s at 500 to 1,000 megawatts each, but were increased in power over several years to 2,000 megawatts.

"It is true that someone can operate at less than maximum power, but the capacity is there," Albright said in an interview. "The reactor gives Pakistan the ability to step up the power of the reactor over time, regardless of what the nameplate power of the reactor is now."


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