Pakistan Rushing Work on Fourth Khushab Nuke Reactor

(May. 16) -Pakistan's Khushab heavy-water plant, shown in 2008. Satellite imagery from April indicates Pakistan has accelerated construction of a fourth reactor at Khushab (Aamir Qureshi/Getty Images).
(May. 16) -Pakistan's Khushab heavy-water plant, shown in 2008. Satellite imagery from April indicates Pakistan has accelerated construction of a fourth reactor at Khushab (Aamir Qureshi/Getty Images).

Satellite photographs from last month show that Pakistan is rushing building work on a fourth nuclear reactor at the Khushab facility, Newsweek reported on Sunday (see GSN, Feb. 10).

The apparent speed with which Pakistan has moved to build another plutonium-producing reactor demonstrates the nuclear-armed South Asian state is expanding its nuclear program at a faster rate than any other country in the world. As of December 2009, satellite photographs did offer any sign of the fourth reactor. The new nuclear facility could become active as soon as 2013.

"The buildup is remarkable," Institute for Science and International Security analyst Paul Brannan said. "And that nobody in the U.S. or in the Pakistani government says anything about this -- especially in this day and age -- is perplexing" (Andrew Bast, Newsweek, May 15).

In an analysis issued on Monday, Brannan and ISIS head David Albright stated that the precise pace of construction of the fourth reactor relative to the other Khushab reactors cannot yet be determined from the images -- though construction has progressed significantly since January 15, 2011."

The organization said that construction of the third reactor at Khushab had proceeded more quickly than the second plant. "It may be building the fourth reactor quicker than the third one. Nonetheless, the fourth reactor will likely take a few years to complete," the report says.

The organization called on Washington to demand that Islamabad stop building additional reactors at the installation (Institute for Science and International Security release, May 16).

Islamabad's nuclear buildup has raised worries about a competition for strategic superiority in South Asia. Some U.S. intelligence analyses project that Pakistan holds no fewer than 90 deployed nuclear weapons and potentially in excess of 110, which would outnumber those nuclear arms held by longtime rival India.

"You're talking about Pakistan even eventually passing France at some point. That's extraordinary," former U.S. Defense Undersecretary Eric Edelman told Newsweek.

France presently has the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, behind the United States, Russia and China (see GSN, Feb. 1).

The secret U.S. commando raid into Pakistan earlier this month that resulted in the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has again raised fears that the South Asian nation's military is not up to the task of guarding its nuclear arsenal from foreign governments or extremists (see GSN, May 11).

"We’ve looked the other way from Pakistan’s growing program for 30 years," Center for Strategic and International Studies specialist Sharon Squassoni said. The world is now confronted with "a disaster waiting to happen," she said.

The United States is particularly concerned about the potential for workers inside the country's expanding fissile material production establishment to gradually pilfer away enough weapon-grade material to build a crude nuclear bomb, recent reports have indicated.

"There’s no transparency in how the fissile material is handled or transported," said Mansoor Ijaz, who has been involved in second-track diplomacy efforts between Pakistan and India. "And the amount -- they have significant quantities -- is what’s so alarming."

An unidentified Defense Department source said the Obama administration is "confident that Pakistan has taken appropriate steps toward securing its nuclear arsenal." Islamabad also rejects any concerns about its nuclear safeguards.

Islamabad says its nuclear augmentation is a reaction to India, which plans to spend $50 billion in the next half-decade to enhance the abilities of its armed forces.

"To say it's just an issue between just India and Pakistan is divorced from reality," said former Senator Sam Nunn, a widely known nonproliferation proponent. "The U.S. and Soviet Union went through 40 years of the Cold War and came out every time from dangerous situations with lessons learned. Pakistan and India have gone through some dangerous times, and they have learned some lessons. But not all of them."

A high-ranking congressional source informed on nuclear issues said U.S. intelligence indicates that Islamabad possesses enough weapon-usable material to build more than 100 warheads and could have an annual production rate of between eight and 20 bombs.

"There's no question, it's the fastest-growing program in the world," the source said.

Not many U.S. officials care to publicly discuss worries about the Pakistani nuclear arsenal's security against a potential terrorist operation.

"The less that is said publicly, the better," former Bush White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said. "But don't confuse the lack of public discussion for a lack of concern."

It appears at present that the Obama administration has an implicit understanding with Pakistan not to press the nuclear issue in exchange for Islamabad's assistance in stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan.

"People bristle at the suggestion, but it follows, doesn’t it?" former CIA point man for terrorism and WMD issues Rolf Mowatt-Larssen said. "The irony is that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the money we’re giving them to fight terrorism, could inadvertently aggravate the very problem we’re trying to stop. After all, terrorism and nukes is the worst-case scenario" (Bast, Newsweek).

Pakistan's parliament on Saturday accused Washington of breaching the nation's sovereignty with its May 1 commando raid and demanded a reassessment of bilateral cooperation, Reuters reported (see GSN, May 10).

The legislative body also called on their government to weigh withdrawing permission for the United States to transport supplies to the U.S. military in Afghanistan through Pakistani territory should another "unilateral" operation take place.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) was in Islamabad on Monday to press leaders there on terrorism concerns; the country's security establishment was anticipated to use the visit to express its own anger over the Navy SEAL raid.

"[Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq] Kayani ... apprised the visiting dignitary about intense feelings of rank and file of the Pakistan army on the Abbottabad incident," the Pakistani army said in a Monday statement (Robert Birsel, Reuters I, May 16).

Some lawmakers in Washington have called for a congressional reassessment of foreign aid to the South Asian nation. Pakistan has received in excess of $20 billion from the United States since September 2001 but some on Capitol HIll want an investigation on whether members of the Pakistani security establishment knew of bin Laden's whereabouts in Abbottabad and withheld that information from the United States. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other lawmakers, though, have cautioned against backing away from supporting Islamabad.

An official in Islamabad said Kerry provided to Kayani a list of "specific demands" that dealt with U.S. concerns that some elements in Pakistan shield extremists, the Associated Press reported.

The U.S. senator, who supports continuing aid to Pakistan, spoke with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on Monday and was anticipated to meet with President Asif Ali Zardari as well.

"The important thing is to understand that major, significant events have taken place in last days that have a profound impact on what we have called the war on terror, a profound impact on our relationship as a result," Kerry said on Sunday to journalists in Afghanistan.

"We need to find a way to march forward if it is possible. If it is not possible, there are a set of downside consequences that can be profound," Kerry said, without providing further specifics (Nahal Toosi, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, May 16).

Meanwhile, the commando raid on the Abbottabad compound demonstrated restrictions on the power of nuclear deterrence, wrote former Pentagon official Eldbridge Colby in a web post to Real Clear World's Compass blog.

Pakistan's substantial nuclear deterrent -- comprised of nuclear bombers and nuclear-capable missiles -- did not prevent the United States from choosing to secretly breach its borders to attack the bin Laden compound.

"Countries that have nuclear weapons can still be confronted and operated against without escalation to nuclear use, particularly when the objective pursued is limited and discriminate, and especially when that objective is connected to a truly vital national interest," Reuters quoted Colby as writing.

In choosing to carry out the secret raid, the Obama administration reasonably felt confident that Islamabad would not consider mounting a nuclear reprisal attack, Colby said (Reuters II, May 14).

May 16, 2011

Satellite photographs from last month show that Pakistan is rushing building work on a fourth nuclear reactor at the Khushab facility, Newsweek reported on Sunday (see GSN, Feb. 10).