Pakistan is building a reactor that could produce enough plutonium for 40 to 50 nuclear weapons in what would be a major expansion of its nuclear programme, The Washington Post reported on Monday.
Satellite photos show what appears to be the construction site for a larger nuclear reactor adjacent to Pakistan's only plutonium production reactor, according to an analysis by nuclear experts at the Washington-based Institute for Science, the newspaper said.
The analysts concluded that the diameter of the structure's metal shell suggests a very large reactor "operating in excess of 1,000 megawatts thermal," the Post said.
"Such a reactor could produce over 200 kg of weapons-grade plutonium per year, assuming it operates at full power a modest 220 days per year," the newspaper said, quoting the technical assessment.
"At four to five kilograms of plutonium per weapon, this stock would allow the production of over 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year."
Pakistan currently is capable of producing about 10 kg of plutonium a year, enough for about two warheads, the Post said.
Construction of the new reactor apparently began sometime in 2000. In April 2006, the roof of the structure was still incomplete, allowing an unobstructed view of the reactor's features, the newspaper reported.
"South Asia may be heading for a nuclear arms race that could lead to arsenals growing into the hundreds of nuclear weapons, or at minimum, vastly expanded stockpiles of military fissile material," the institute's David Albright and Paul Brannan concluded in the technical assessment, the newspaper said.
The article said a copy of the assessment was provided to The Washington Post.
Pakistani officials would neither confirm nor deny the report, but a senior Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that a nuclear expansion was under way, the Post reported.
The newspaper reported that a Europe-based diplomat and nuclear expert and a US-based expert who reviewed the commercially available satellite images and supporting data concurred fully with the institute's estimates.