Pakistan Expanding Nuclear Program
Plant Underway Could Generate Plutonium for 40
to 50 Bombs a Year, Analysts Say
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006; A01
Pakistan has begun building what independent analysts say is a powerful new reactor for producing plutonium,
a move that, if verified, would signal a major expansion of the country's nuclear weapons capabilities and a potential new
escalation in the region's arms race.
Satellite photos of Pakistan's Khushab nuclear site show what appears to be a partially completed heavy-water
reactor capable of producing enough plutonium for 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year, a 20-fold increase from Pakistan's current
capabilities, according to a technical assessment by Washington-based nuclear experts.
The construction site is adjacent to Pakistan's only plutonium production reactor, a modest, 50-megawatt unit
that began operating in 1998. By contrast, the dimensions of the new reactor suggest a capacity of 1,000 megawatts or more,
according to the analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security. Pakistan is believed to have 30 to 50 uranium
warheads, which tend to be heavier and more difficult than plutonium warheads to mount on missiles.
"South Asia may be heading for a nuclear arms race that could lead to arsenals growing into the hundreds of
nuclear weapons, or at minimum, vastly expanded stockpiles of military fissile material," the institute's David Albright and
Paul Brannan concluded in the technical assessment, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post.
The assessment's key judgments were endorsed by two other independent nuclear experts who reviewed the commercially
available satellite images, provided by Digital Globe, and supporting data. In Pakistan, officials would not confirm or deny
the report, but a senior Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that a nuclear expansion was
"Pakistan's nuclear program has matured. We're now consolidating the program with further expansions," the
official said. The expanded program includes "some civilian nuclear power and some military components," he said.
The development raises fresh concerns about a decades-old rivalry between Pakistan and India. Both countries
already possess dozens of nuclear warheads and a variety of missiles and other means for delivering them.
Pakistan, like India, has never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. One of its pioneering nuclear
scientists, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who confessed two years ago to operating a network that supplied nuclear materials and know-how
to Libya, Iran and North Korea.
The evidence of a possible escalation also comes as Congress prepares to debate a controversial nuclear cooperation
agreement between the Bush administration and India. The agreement would grant India access to sensitive U.S. nuclear technology
in return for placing its civilian nuclear reactors under tighter safeguards.
No such restrictions were placed on India's military nuclear facilities. India currently has an estimated
30 to 35 nuclear warheads based on a sophisticated plutonium design. Pakistan, which uses a simpler, uranium-based warhead
design, has sought for years to modernize its arsenal, and a new heavy-water reactor could allow it to do so, weapons experts
"With plutonium bombs, Pakistan can fully join the nuclear club," said a Europe-based diplomat and nuclear
expert, speaking on condition that he not be identified by name, after reviewing the satellite evidence. He concurred with
the Institute for Science and International Security assessment but offered a somewhat lower estimate -- "up to tenfold" --
for the increase in Pakistan's plutonium production. A third, U.S.-based expert concurred fully with the institute's estimates.
Pakistan launched its nuclear program in the early 1970s and conducted its first successful nuclear test in
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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