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Nuclear Experts Say Pakistan May Be Building 4th Plutonium Nuclear Reactor

Pakistan has begun work on what independent experts say appears to be a
fourth plutonium-producing reactor at the country’s Khushab nuclear
complex, a move that could signal a further escalation in Pakistan’s
arms race with arch-rival India.

Commercial satellite photographs taken last month show major new
construction at Khushab, a key nuclear installation southwest of
Islamabad that generates plutonium for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

The new structure is roughly the same size and shape as two
plutonium-producing heavy-water reactors located a few hundreds yards
away in the heavily guarded compound, according to an analysis by the
Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington
organization that studies nuclear proliferation.

The building “appears to be a fourth reactor” for producing
weapons-grade plutonium, according to the ISIS analysis, a copy of which
was provided to The Washington Post. ISIS said the facility would
substantially expand Islamabad’s nuclear capacity by allowing it to
produce “more plutonium for nuclear bombs.”

Pakistani officials in Washington, asked about a fourth reactor at
Khushab, declined to comment. A U.S. counterproliferation official who
reviewed the images declined to comment on the ISIS analysis but said
that U.S. intelligence agencies have been monitoring Khushab for years
and are “aware of this facility.”

The new reactor, if verified, would signal yet another step forward in
Pakistan’s ambitious effort to modernize and expand its nuclear arsenal.
A Washington Post article last month reported that Pakistan’s stockpile
was estimated to have grown to more than 100 deployed weapons and to
have surpassed that of India.

The rapid growth of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has fueled fears of an
escalating arms race in one of the world’s most troubled regions. India
and Pakistan, which have fought three wars in 60 years, have launched
initiatives in recent years to modernize their nuclear warheads and
delivery systems.

“Another reactor just hammers the point that Pakistan is determined to
make a lot of plutonium for nuclear weapons, frankly far more than they
need or is healthy for the region and the world,” said ISIS President
David Albright, who co-authored the report with researcher Paul Brannan.

The first heavy-water reactor at Khushab became operational in 1996, and
a second reactor was inaugurated about a year ago. The two together can
generate an estimated 22 kilograms of plutonium a year, enough for up
to four bombs. A third reactor is under construction near the second
one.

Satellite images provided by ISIS and the commercial imagery firm
DigitalGlobe show work underway on a 16,000-square-foot structure that
bears a striking resemblance to the second and third reactors. There was
no construction at the site when a satellite took photographs of the
area in November, Albright said.

Olli Heinonen, former director of safeguards at the International Atomic
Energy Agency, said the new reactor was “worrying, given the unstable
situation there.”

“Commissioning of additional plutonium-production reactors and further
construction of reprocessing capabilities signify that Pakistan may even
be developing second-strike capabilities,” said Heinonen, now a senior
fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and
International Affairs.