This article incorrectly said that the Obama administration is seeking to bring to completion this year an international treaty banning production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. The administration is seeking the formal launch of negotiations on the treaty this year.
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New estimates put Pakistan's nuclear arsenal at more than 100
"It's a risky path, particularly for a government under pressure," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, fresh from a visit to Islamabad, said in remarks at the Nixon Center on Thursday.
Wary of upsetting Pakistan's always-fragile political balance, the White House rarely mentions the country's arsenal in public except to voice confidence in its strong internal safeguards, with warheads kept separate from delivery vehicles. But the level of U.S. concern was reflected during last month's White House war review, when Pakistan's nuclear security was set as one of two long-term strategy objectives there, along with the defeat of al-Qaeda, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A publicly released summary of the classified review document made no reference to the nuclear issue, and the White House deflected questions on grounds that it was an intelligence matter. This week, a spokesman said the administration would not respond to inquiries about the size of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor referred to Obama's assurance at last spring's Nuclear Security Summit that he felt "confident about Pakistan's security around its nuclear weapons program." Vietor noted that Obama has encouraged "all nations" to support negotiations on the fissile cutoff treaty.
"The administration is always trying to keep people from talking about this knowledgeably," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a leading analyst on the world's nuclear forces. "They're always trying to downplay" the numbers and insisting that "it's smaller than you think."
"It's hard to say how much the U.S. knows," said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists and author of the annual global nuclear weapons inventory published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. "Probably a fair amount. But it's a mixed bag - Pakistan is an ally, and they can't undercut it with a statement of concern in public."
Beyond intelligence on the ground, U.S. officials assess Pakistan's nuclear weapons program with the same tools used by the outside experts - satellite photos of nuclear-related installations, estimates of fissile-material production and weapons development, and publicly available statements and facts.
Four years ago, the Pakistani arsenal was estimated at 30 to 60 weapons.
"They have been expanding pretty rapidly," Albright said. Based on recently accelerated production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, "they could have more than doubled in that period," with current estimates of up to 110 weapons.
Kristensen said it was "not unreasonable" to say that Pakistan has now produced at least 100 weapons. Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at Britain's University of Bradford, put the number at between 100 and 110.
Some Pakistani officials have intimated they have even more. But just as the United States has a vested interest in publicly playing down the total, Pakistan sees advantage in "playing up the number of weapons they've got," Gregory said. "They're at a disadvantage with India with conventional forces," in terms of both weaponry and personnel.
Only three nuclear countries - Pakistan, India and Israel - have never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India is estimated to have 60 to 100 weapons; numbers are even less precise for Israel's undeclared program, estimated at up to 200. North Korea, which has conducted nuclear tests and is believed to have produced enough fissile material for at least a half-dozen bombs, withdrew from the treaty in 2003.