WASHINGTON — Additional evidence has emerged that Pakistan is "greatly expanding" its nuclear weapons program even as Islamic insurgents have been advancing toward the country's heartland from its border with Afghanistan.
Commercial satellites photographs published by the private Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security show the construction of new facilities at sites that produce components for Pakistan's nuclear warheads.
The new buildings appear to include a second plant near the military headquarters city of Rawalpindi for separating plutonium for nuclear weapons from spent reactor fuel.
"Commercial satellite imagery supports the conclusion that Pakistan, over the last several years, has concentrated on greatly expanding its nuclear weapons production complex," said one of two ISIS reports published Tuesday on the group's Web site. "The reasons for this expansion are undoubtedly related to Pakistani decisions to upgrade its nuclear arsenal."
The Pakistani military is likely seeking warheads that are more powerful, compact and easier to deliver than those in its current arsenal, which is believed to comprise 60-100 highly enriched uranium weapons, said the report on the expansion of a chemical complex at Dera Ghazi Khan.
Pakistan and archrival India conducted tit-for-tat underground nuclear tests in 1998, and some experts think Pakistan's efforts to expand its nuclear program may be a response to a 2007 U.S.-India agreement that critics charge could enable India to produce more plutonium for its nuclear arsenal.
"Activities at Dera Ghazi Khan related to nuclear weapons production are unnecessary, as Pakistan currently has more than enough nuclear weapons," said the ISIS report. "In the current climate, with Pakistan's leadership under duress from daily acts of violence by insurgent Taliban forces and organized political opposition, the security of its nuclear assets remains in question."
The report called on the Obama administration to persuade Pakistan to halt its production of fissile materials and join international negotiations on a global treaty banning the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
McClatchy first reported the expansion of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program on May 1, after ISIS published satellite pictures showing the construction of two new plutonium production reactors at Khushab in Punjab Province.
Concerns have been rising over the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and weapons facilities amid a drive by Taliban insurgents allied with al Qaida to seize the North West Frontier Province districts of Swat, Dir and Buner, which is about 60 miles north of Islamabad, the capital.
The Pakistani military, which under heavy U.S. pressure launched operations last month to recapture the areas, Wednesday claimed to have retaken Sultanwas, the main town of Buner.
The Pakistani government and the Obama administration say Pakistan's nuclear weapons are secure, but some U.S. officials and other experts remain concerned that Islamic extremists could infiltrate a nuclear facility and obtain radioactive material for a dirty bomb.
The report on the Chemical Plants Complex at Dera Ghazi Khan, where natural uranium hexafluoride and uranium metal for Pakistan's nuclear weapons are produced, said that a comparison of satellite images from October 2004 and August 2008 show a major expansion of the site.
"The expansion includes new industrial buildings, new anti-aircraft installations and several new settling ponds," said the report. "A new plot of land adjacent to the southern side of compound #1 will likely contain new industrial buildings and will roughly double its size."
The report noted that suspected rebels from Pakistan's Baluch minority attacked the site in 2003, and a suicide bomber killed more than 30 people in Dera Ghazi Khan, about 200 miles southwest of Islamabad, in February.
The second ISIS report compared a series of satellite images of the New Labs, a part of the Pakistan Institute of Science and Technology, near Islamabad's sister city of Rawalpindi, between February 2002 and September 2006.
The pictures "show the construction of what appears to be a second plutonium separation plant adjacent to the original one, suggesting that Pakistan is increasing its plutonium separation capacity in anticipation of an increased supply of spent fuel" from the two new reactors at Khushab, said the report.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009