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.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Dec. 22, 2013, 10:02 p.m.

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.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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