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July 24: Pakistan has begun building what independent analysts say is a powerful new reactor for producing plutonium sufficient for 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year.
The move, if verified, will signal a 20-fold expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capabilities, but Indian nuclear scientists expressed scepticism about the neighbour’s capability to build and run such a big reactor.
Satellite photos of Pakistan’s Khushab nuclear site show what appears to be a partially completed heavy-water reactor, according to a technical assessment, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post.
The construction site is adjacent to Pakistan’s only plutonium production reactor, a modest 50-mw unit. By contrast, the dimensions of the new reactor suggest a capacity of 1,000 mw or more, according to the analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security.
Pakistan is believed to have 30 to 50 uranium warheads, which tend to be heavier and more difficult than plutonium warheads to mount on missiles. India has an estimated 30 to 35 nuclear warheads based on a sophisticated plutonium design.
In Islamabad, officials would not confirm or deny the report, but a senior official acknowledged that a nuclear expansion was underway.
But Indian scientists believe that Pakistan does not have the capability to build and operate a 1000-mw nuclear reactor on its own, nor is it likely to build such a giant reactor only for weapons-grade plutonium.
“The ground realities in Pakistan don’t match such ambitions,” said Adinarayan Gopalakrishna, former head of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The construction and operation of a 1000-mw reactor would demand a level of sophistication in engineering and manufacturing capabilities that Pakistan does not possess, he said.
India’s own large reactors such as the 540-mw nuclear power reactors in Tarapur have emerged from years of research and depend much on the manufacturing might of private and public sector giants. The nuclear experts also said that even if Pakistan did have the engineering capabilities, a 1,000-mw reactor exclusively for weapons-grade plutonium should be considered unlikely.
“A 1,000-mw reactor for plutonium alone would be stupid or wasteful,” said Padmanabha Iyengar, former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission. However, if such a reactor is tailored to produce electricity, it will have to burn its nuclear fuel longer. The quality of the plutonium from such a reactor would be inferior 'not weapons-grade.
One possibility is that the 1,000-mw reactor could be burnt at times for electricity and at other times ' short periods ' for plutonium, reducing the electricity generating capacity during such plutonium “campaigns”.
But the spent nuclear fuel would need to be reprocessed for plutonium, and experts here doubt Pakistan’s capacity for reprocessing very large amounts of spent fuel.