External Work on Pakistan Plutonium Reactor Looks Nearly Done

A heavy-water reactor at Pakistan's Khushab nuclear complex in April 2008. Recent satellite images indicate the exterior of a fourth plutonium-production reactor at the site is almost finished (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images).
A heavy-water reactor at Pakistan's Khushab nuclear complex in April 2008. Recent satellite images indicate the exterior of a fourth plutonium-production reactor at the site is almost finished (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images).

The exterior of Pakistan's newest plutonium-production reactor appears almost complete, though it is unclear when the reactor will be up and running.

Satellite photography captured as recently as Nov. 1 "clearly shows that the external construction of the fourth reactor building [at the Khushab nuclear complex] appears nearly complete," Serena Kelleher-Vergantini and Robert Avagyan find in an Institute for Science and International Security report published on Friday.

However, the imagery also shows that a "considerable amount of additional construction" remains under way at the reactor site, according to the report.

Islamabad does not provide updates to the international community on the status of efforts to expand its fissile-material production capabilities. That leaves the public just a few sources of information about the program, such as commercial-satellite images.

"Given that satellite imagery provides limited indication of the reactor's operational status, predicting when the fourth reactor will become operational is difficult," write Kelleher-Vergantini and Avagyan.

The fourth reactor appears to have a layout slightly different from the two reactors that immediately preceded it at Khushab. Construction of the new heavy-water reactor has also moved at a more sluggish pace than was earlier predicted. This could be the result of working out the kinks of a new reactor blueprint or for an entirely different reason that cannot be detected by satellite, according to the ISIS report.

The space-based surveillance did not turn up any signs that work had begun on a potential fifth plutonium reactor at Khushab, the authors noted.

Pakistan is believed to be growing its plutonium-production capacity in order to allow it to acquire an arsenal of plutonium-fueled warheads. Its current nuclear arsenal uses uranium-based warheads.

December 23, 2013
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The exterior of Pakistan's newest plutonium-production reactor appears almost complete, though it is unclear when the reactor will be up and running.

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