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Expert Says Pakistan Improving Quality Of Nuclear Arsenal

A satellite image by the Federation of American Scientists shows Pakistan's Khushab plutonium-production reactor.

A satellite image by the Federation of American Scientists shows Pakistan's Khushab plutonium-production reactor.

WASHINGTON -- The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization that focuses on the spread of nuclear weapons, has released reports showing how Pakistan has been greatly expanding its nuclear-weapons production complex in recent years.

The conclusions are based on comparisons of commercial satellite imagery from 2004 and 2008 at several of Pakistan's nuclear facilities. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke to David Albright, one of the authors of the reports.

RFE/RL: What major findings have been revealed by the commercial satellite images of Pakistan's nuclear weapons complex that you have studied?

David Albright:
The images reveal that Pakistan is expanding its nuclear-weapons-production complex. It has been going on for several years, but within a few years it will be finished.

Most of the renovations that we've found, at least, focus on making pretty large quantities of plutonium. And that says to us that Pakistan wants to change the nature of its nuclear arsenal.

Traditionally, it has used weapons-grade uranium as the nuclear-explosive fuel. And that allowed it to build certain types of fission weapons. If they go to plutonium as the fuel for nuclear weapons, they can build smaller nuclear weapons."

RFE/RL: What is significant about Pakistan developing the ability to make smaller nuclear weapons?

They could put them on more types of delivery vehicles -- such as cruise missiles. They could also be able to build, or try to build, thermonuclear weapons. They are pretty big, normally. And if you use plutonium in a nuclear trigger, it is an atomic bomb that sets off the thermonuclear material. Then you can get a smaller thermonuclear weapon.

And so we think the focus of Pakistan will be not just on increasing the number of its weapons, but increasing their lethality and the destructive power of those weapons."

RFE/RL: What structures are shown by the satellite images that you've obtained from 2004 and from 2008?

The plutonium [program] is driven by the Khushab reactors. What the photos show of the Khushab reactor is one [reactor] -- a finished reactor, and then two under construction that appear bigger. You can see now that with one [reactor that is under construction], the outside part is finished. On the third [reactor], they are working on the outside structures.

Dera Ghazi Khan is a facility that handles uranium and it converts it from various forms into other forms. And so it is very important in making the fuel for the Khushab reactors. It has also been involved in making the weapons-grade uranium metal for nuclear-weapons components.

And it also makes what is called uranium hexafluoride. It is used as the feed into gas-centrifuge plants -- one of which is at Kahuta, [the site of Pakistan's main nuclear-weapons laboratory and an emerging center for long-range missiles. This] is then converted up to weapons-grade uranium. That weapons-grade uranium hexafluoride comes back to Dera Ghazi Khan, or it goes to other places, and it is turned into metal. And then that metal is made into bomb components.

Basically, Dera Ghazi Khan is part of what we call the nuclear-weapons complex -- or part of the fuel cycle of a nuclear weapon. There are three compounds, two of which appear to have been doubled in size. So what you see in the [satellite] image is, you see a building in the older image. And in the newer image it is twice as big. And in one other place near Dera Ghazi Khan, you see an area that has been cleared."

RFE/RL: Are there other significant satellite images that you have studied?

There is another image. It is the new labs facility. And what you see there is a new building has been added next to the old plutonium-separation plant. So we believe that that is an expansion of the reprocessing plant or the plutonium-separation plant. And the plutonium would be produced in the Khushab reactors.

Security Concerns

RFE/RL: Your report says that the Dera Ghazi Khan nuclear site has actually been targeted by gunmen in recent years. What is the significance of those attacks?

What we understand is that there were attacks. And it was not Taliban. It was another group from Baluchistan that has grievances against the government. It exemplifies the ethnic tensions in Pakistan that are often expressed violently.

RFE/RL: U.S. officials have recently said that Pakistan has the fastest-growing nuclear-weapons program in the world -- at least in terms of installing additional capacity to produce nuclear materials for weapons. Does your analysis of the satellite imagery support those conclusions?

The way we interpret it is that Pakistan is making weapons-grade uranium in its enrichment plants. And we estimate it is probably about enough for six weapons a year. And that is quite a bit.

No one is making them except India, Pakistan, and maybe Israel. But we're not even sure that Israel makes new nuclear weapons anymore unless they are just to replace ancient ones. In that sense, Pakistan is making a lot.

I wouldn't characterize this as the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world because only India and Pakistan's arsenal is growing. The rest are just staying the same or shrinking.

But where we see a lot of growth in Pakistan that we don't see in India is in the nuclear-weapons complex, where they really seem to want to change the nature of their arsenal, get much more plutonium and build more sophisticated weapons. That's one of the things that is alarming. It greatly expands the size of the nuclear-weapons complex, which means it has to be better protected.

And it is going to challenge India. They are not going to let this go by without a response. And you see India and Pakistan then building up arsenals that start to challenge China's. And then China is going to have to respond. So it just seems the wrong way to go.

RFE/RL: Pakistan's military says that the country's nuclear weapons are secure and that there is no risk those weapons will fall into the hands of militants or terrorists. What are your concerns on this issue?

Pakistan, they want to say everything is fine -- no security problems. We know there are security problems. No one is perfect. And no one has the challenges to security that Pakistan has.

I mean, not many countries with major nuclear facilities have armed gunmen running around who want to destabilize the government. If you can attack a nuclear site successfully -- and attacking successfully means destroying it -- it is just showing that the government is impotent to stop you.

And I think they protect their nuclear weapons well because we estimate there are around 60 to 100 of them. They are relatively small objects, probably not assembled. And they put them in vaults within vaults in guarded buildings on military sites. You have hundreds of thousands of military people with guns to protect these things.

So then, you are only vulnerable when you transport them. But typically, the transportation happens in the making of the components and the making of the bomb itself. That's where, I think, the vulnerabilities start to show up. And the United States won't talk about that much.

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