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Pakistan Presses Ahead on Plutonium Reactor

Pakistan is roughly 50 percent finished in building a fourth nuclear reactor site at a facility that generates plutonium for nuclear bombs, the Institute for Science and International Security said in a Monday analysis (see GSN, May 16, 2011).

"The completion of the fourth Khushab reactor would constitute a significant increase in Pakistan's ability to make plutonium which appears related to its goal of building a large number of smaller nuclear weapons," according to the Washington-based think tank. Pakistan is presently estimated to hold as many as 110 nuclear weapons (see GSN, April 11).

The interior of the reactor's housing remains exposed in a photograph taken of the site from space on April 3, though the reactor container itself is not within view,  the analysis states. Structural support columns moved close to the work location match components at the Khushab facility's second and third reactor sites.

Crews have apparently wrapped up building multiple adjacent constructs, including the reactor's exhaust tower. In addition, two "clearly defined" areas established close to the unfinished reactor have an exterior portion comparable to the nearby section hosting the facility's No. 2 and No. 3 reactors, experts wrote in the report.

The dispersal and appearance of certain structures around the fourth reactor site are different from comparable infrastructure near the second and third systems, the ISIS assessment adds.

"The reason for these differences in not known," the document states. "It is also unknown whether Pakistan plans to build a fifth reactor next to the fourth reactor just as it did in the case of reactors No. 2 and No. 3."

"Based on the available imagery ISIS estimates that the construction of the fourth reactor is proceeding about 30 percent faster than construction on reactor No. 3 and that major external work could be complete within 15 months. Predicting when the fourth reactor will become operational is much more difficult since a lack of external construction does not preclude work inside the building and because satellite imagery provides limited indications as to its operational status," the analysis states.

Orbital pictures reveal an increase in protective measures across the entire Khushab nuclear site, including the addition of broadened guarded areas around the facility's four reactors and its heavy-water facility, the group said. The ramped-up protection might be a safeguard against strikes by extremist organizations, which have grown more ambitious in their strikes on Pakistani armed forces installations, the ISIS analysis states (see GSN, May 24, 2011).

The new reactor project reflects an atomic weapons buildup by Pakistan and its regional rival India, according to the think tank. The group urged governments to help avert an intensification by pressing Islamabad to permit talks on a fissile material cutoff treaty at the international Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland (see GSN, May 17; Institute for Science and International Security release, May 21).

NTI Analysis

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This article provides an overview of Pakistan’s historical and current policies relating to nuclear, chemical, biological and missile proliferation.

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