Vienna: Pakistan appears to be building a fourth military nuclear reactor, signalling its determination to produce more plutonium for atomic weapons, a US-based think-tank said.
The report came as India and Pakistan agreed to resume peace talks that were broken off by New Delhi after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, a move that should help ease tensions in the volatile region.
The nuclear-armed neighbours have been under pressure from the United States to reduce tension because their rivalry spills over into Afghanistan, complicating peace efforts there.
The Institute for Science and International Security (Isis), a think-tank specialising in nuclear proliferation issues, said it had obtained commercial satellite images from mid-January.
They showed “what appears to be a fourth reactor under construction at Pakistan’s Khushab nuclear site,” ISIS experts David Albright and Paul Brannan said in the 9 February report.
“Pakistan is determined to produce considerably more plutonium for nuclear weapons,” they wrote.
Pakistan’s mission to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, was not immediately available for comment.
Pakistan has made clear its opposition to global talks to ban future production of nuclear bomb-making material, arguing that existing stocks of plutonium and enriched uranium should be included to counter India’s advantage.
Some analysts say Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and stockpile of weapons-grade material pose a risk in the region because of internal security threats from the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Iran and North Korea, seen as major proliferation risks by the West, are believed to have benefited from a nuclear smuggling ring run by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb and a national hero.
Isis published images which it said showed a building relatively early in its construction at Khushab, about 170 km (110 miles) southwest of Islamabad. It added that “the footprint for the building is similarly sized to that of the second and third Khushab reactors”.
In imagery from late 2009, vapour could be seen rising from the second reactor’s cooling tower fan blades, indicating it was at least at some stage of initial operation, Isis said.
“Vapour can again be seen rising from some of the second reactor’s cooling towers in the January 15, 2011 imagery, though none can be seen yet over the third reactor’s cooling towers.”
In 1998, Pakistan commissioned the first Khushab research reactor, which is capable of yielding 10-15 kg (22 to 33 lb) of weapons-grade plutonium annually.
Pakistan, which embarked on a nuclear weapon programme in the early 1970s, conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, shortly after India conducted its own weapon tests. Like India, Pakistan is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.