South Asia’s Nuclear Arms Race Heating Up?

Pakistan and India are vigorously expanding their fissile material production capacity to increase their nuclear weapons stockpiles. One report says Pakistan has operationalized its new plutonium producing facility at Khushab, about six weeks after reports appeared that India has almost completed the construction of its second gas centrifuge facility near Mysore.

Posted on 01/19/15
By Jehangir Khattak | Via ViewsWeek
An artist's image of the Khushab nuclear facility released by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. (Image from NTI video)
An artist’s image of the Khushab nuclear facility released by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. (Image from NTI video)

 

India and Pakistan continue to aggressively pursue their nuclear weapons programs despite muted concern by the global powers at rising tensions between the two rivals, especially since the rise of Narendra Modi in India. Pakistan has reportedly operationalized its new plutonium producing facility at Khushab, about six weeks after reports appeared that India has almost completed construction of its second gas centrifuge facility near Mysore.

 

Washington-based think-tank Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) says a recently purchased Digital Globe high resolution satellite image dated January 15, 2015 shows that Pakistan’s Khushab’s fourth reactor’s external construction is complete and has become operational.

 

ISIS is a non-profit, non-partisan institution dedicated to informing the public about science and policy issues affecting international security. Its primary focus is on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and related technology to additional nations and to terrorists, bringing about greater transparency of nuclear activities worldwide, strengthening the international non-proliferation regime, and achieving deep cuts in nuclear arsenals.

 

“This assessment is based on the presence of a very specific signature: steam is venting from the reactor’s cooling system,” says David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini in an article posted on the ISIS website.

 

Khushab-4 is part of Khushab Nuclear Complex — a plutonium production nuclear reactor and heavy water complex located 124 miles south of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad — is dedicated to the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

 

Pakistan has never provided public information regarding any of the Khushab reactors. Therefore, the power output can only be estimated. ISIS estimates the power of the original heavy water reactor to be about 50 MWth while reactors 2, 3, and 4 are believed to generate double or more the power of the first one, and are thus capable of producing more than double the amount of weapon-grade plutonium per year.

 

David Albright, who is the president and founder of ISIS, and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, a research analyst at the ISIS, believe that expansion of Khushab appears to be part of an ‘effort to increase the production of weapons-grade plutonium’.

 

Enhanced plutonium production will allow Pakistan to build a larger number of miniaturized plutonium-based nuclear weapons that can complement its existing highly enriched uranium nuclear weapons. Pakistan is believed to have enough fissile material to build 110-120 nuclear weapons.

 

A December 2014 report by the Council on Foreign Relations titled Strategic Stability in the Second Nuclear Age, declared Pakistan’s as the fastest growing nuclear program in the world. It estimated that Pakistan could have enough fissile material to build 200 nuclear weapons by 2020, surpassing the stockpiles of United Kingdom.

 

The Khushab heavy water plant and heavy water reactor became operational in the 1990s. However, Pakistan initiated the construction of a second heavy water reactor between the year 2000 and 2002, a third one in 2006, and a fourth one in 2011. In their report, Albright and Serena note:

 

The recent imagery shows that two previously unseen types of activity are taking place at the site. First, vegetation has been eliminated in a large central area between reactor 1 and reactors 2 and 3 (see figure 4). It is difficult to establish whether this desertification is intentional or not. If intentional, it could potentially signify that Pakistan is preparing the grounds for future construction activities. Second, both December 2014 and January 2015 images show that some new construction activity is taking place in the south-west corner of the Khushab site, south of reactors 2, 3, and 4 (see figure 4). It is not yet clear what this activity is. One possibility that cannot be ruled out is that this activity could be for the construction of another reactor.

 

India Increasing Uranium Enrichment Capacity

Satellite image of Maysor plant. (Photo via daijiworld.com)
Satellite image of Maysor plant. (Photo via daijiworld.com)

Pakistan’s arch-rival India has also been making efforts to accelerate production of enriched uranium. ISIS reported in December 2014 that construction is finishing on what appears to be a second gas centrifuge facility at the Rare Materials Plant (RMP), near Mysore, the third largest city in India’s southwestern state of Karnataka. India is believed to have enough fissile material to build between 90 and 110 nuclear bombs.

 

India has been pursuing a gas centrifuge program to enrich uranium since the 1970s. In 1982, India’s Department of Atomic Energy decided to “construct a classified technology demonstration project,” the RMP, as a unit of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) at Mysore for uranium enrichment. ISIS quoting BARC says over the last three decades this project has matured and allegedly proven itself at the demonstration scale. The “success” of this secret military enrichment program, ISIS reported, likely depended on illegal purchases of goods and technology abroad given that this unit aimed to overcome international sanctions imposed on India and trade controls of supplier nations, which BARC called the “Technology Denial Regime”.

 

“This new facility could significantly increase India’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes, including more powerful nuclear weapons.  India is also in the early stages of building a larger unsafeguarded centrifuge complex, the Special Material Enrichment Facility (SMEF), in Karnataka,” said David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini in a separate report they released on December 4, 2014.

 

However, as a result of domestic opposition alleging this facility is on environmentally sensitive lands, the National Green Tribunal, the government environmental oversight body, ordered major construction to halt temporarily in August 2013.  Moreover, India’s enrichment plants are not under international safeguards or committed to peaceful uses.  Thus, governments and suppliers of nuclear and nuclear-related dual use goods throughout the world should be vigilant to prevent efforts by Indian trading and manufacturing companies to acquire such goods for the new centrifuge complex in Karnataka as well as for the RMP.

 

Albright and Serena wrote although the status of this program is “secret”, ISIS has used for several years high resolution commercial satellite imagery to monitor the development of  Mysore plant, which is believed to be the major site of this classified technology project and home to India’s first major centrifuge plant. “It started operations several years ago and is not under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.  In 2010, India started building what appears to be a second larger centrifuge plant at the site.  However, it is unclear if this new plant is to supplement or replace the first one,” they wrote in their report.

 

India has reportedly made highly enriched uranium (HEU) at this site, and in 2011 its top nuclear official said this enrichment site is more than adequate for producing enough enriched uranium for its nuclear-powered submarine reactors. India’s newly developed Arihant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine is assessed as having an 80 megawatt-thermal nuclear reactor onboard and a core that contains approximately 65 kg of U-235 in HEU. Although the INS Arihant reactor went critical for the first time only in August 2013, India has started the construction of its second nuclear-powered submarine (INS Aridaman) and is believed to have plans to start the construction of a third one.  India also may be making HEU at the RMP for nuclear weapons, in particular for thermonuclear weapons.

 

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