Pakistan is close to increasing several-fold its ability to make weapon-grade plutonium through two atomic reactors it is building and the development could exacerbate a nuclear arms race with India, a US think tank has said.
The Institute for Science and International Security said it had obtained commercial satellite imagery in February, May and September 2008 that showed Pakistan was nearing completion of the second plutonium production reactor in Khushab.
The images show a "clearly visible row of cooling towers, typically built in the later phase of reactor construction," and the second reactor could "start in a year," said a report issued by ISIS.
It said work was also underway on a third plutonium production reactor in Khushab. Satellite imagery obtained on September 3 showed that "the roof of the third Khushab reactor hall is not yet placed on top and the reactor vessel can be seen inside."
"Once completed, these reactors will increase several-fold Pakistan's ability to make weapon-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons," the report said.
"The wider implication of Pakistan increasing its plutonium production capacity must not be overlooked. There is a real risk that it will exacerbate an India-Pakistan nuclear arms race and increase tensions more broadly between the two," it said.
A priority for the US should be "a verified cut-off of the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons in South Asia and worldwide," ISIS said.
Both India and Pakistan have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and went nuclear after testing atomic weapons in 1998.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group recently approved a waiver to its rules to allow India to acquire technology and know-how as part of the civil nuclear deal with the US.
Pakistan has been seeking a similar exemption, saying there should not be any discrimination towards its efforts to acquire equipment and know-how to boost the generation of atomic power.
The Khushab nuclear site in Punjab province originally consisted of one heavy water reactor with a power of about 50 MW and a heavy water production facility. Details about the construction of the second and third reactors emerged in 2006 and 2007.
ISIS said while "Pakistan has not sought to conceal the construction of these reactors, it still has not spoken publicly about their power, treating the subject as a state secret."
The construction of additional cooling towers, revealed by satellite imagery obtained by ISIS this month, "imply that the new reactors could be larger than the first one."
"No electricity production equipment is seen in the (satellite) images. This is consistent with the purpose of the reactors being to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons," the report said.
It said that if each of the two new reactors "operates at 100 megawatts-thermal", they could produce "enough plutonium for eight to 10 nuclear weapons per year."
The first Khushab reactor's plutonium production capacity is about two to three nuclear weapons a year.
"Pakistan's increase in plutonium production furthers needlessly the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan and undermines fragile efforts at rapprochement between the two countries in other spheres.
India can easily match Pakistan's actions, given its own capabilities to produce plutonium for weapons in heavy water power reactors and a breeder reactor under construction. Rather than witnessing a wasteful and dangerous surge in the production of fissile materials for weapons in South Asia, the US should make a key priority convincing Pakistan to join the negotiations of a universal, verified Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, which would ban the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear explosives in a verifiable manner," it said.
As an interim step, the US "should press both countries to suspend any production of fissile material for nuclear weapons," the report said.
Referring to Pakistan's refusal to join negotiations of a cutoff treaty, ISIS said: "Most suspect that Pakistan wants to buy time to achieve its goal of operating the Khushab reactors to significantly increase its weapon-grade plutonium stock."
It said this issue could be overcome "if the US supports the conversion of the Khushab reactors to electricity production and works more actively with both India and Pakistan to limit the size of their nuclear arsenals."