Pakistan has acknowledged that a major new Pakistani plutonium nuclear reactor under construction at Khushab could be used for "military purposes", but claimed it will not lead to a massive increase in the country's nuclear arsenal.
This first official acknowledgment that "the heavy-water reactor will bring at least some increase in Pakistan's military nuclear capability at a time of heightened fears of a South Asia arms race with rival India" came from Pakistan's new ambassador in an interview with the Washington Times.
"The plutonium may certainly be used for military purposes, but it is simply not the case that it will increase our capability X-fold," Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former top defence adviser to the Pakistani president and chairman of the country's military industrial complex for much of the 1990s, told the daily.
He declined to give production figures for the new plant, but said it would be far less powerful than the 1,000-megawatt estimate given last month by the Institute for Science and International Security.
Pakistan's current reactor, located near the new one, is a 50-megawatt unit completed in 1998.
"I would love it to be 1,000 megawatts, because we certainly have the power needs," he joked dismissing the private Washington-based think tank's report as "grossly exaggerated".
He denied the new plant could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium to boost the country's production from an estimated two bombs a year to as many as 50.
Durrani's interview came just a day after the New York Times suggested that American officials are seeking to dispute the think tank's finding about Khushab's potential to make 50 nuclear warheads a year to mute criticism of a key ally.
The Khushab site has sparked international concerns as the US and India move to ratify a nuclear cooperation deal that critics warn could allow India to greatly accelerate its own military nuclear programme, the Washington Times noted.
Durrani said Pakistan had conveyed its "deep concerns" about the Indo-US nuclear accord to the Bush administration, but acknowledged it was unlikely the deal could be derailed.
"We know your administration is very keen for this deal, but we also don't want to see an imbalance with India that we would have to match," he said.
He frankly acknowledged that the case of Abdul Qader Khan -- considered the father of Pakistan's atom bomb -- who sold sensitive nuclear technology to rogue states such as Iran and North Korea before his smuggling ring was broken up in 2004, was "an absolute, total, unmitigated disaster for my country," raising doubts in Washington and other capitals about the reliability of Pakistan's non-proliferation controls.
"It pulled our image down very badly and it will take us time to get out of this mess," Durrani said hoping to end what he called the "yo-yo", up-and-down relationship his country has had with the US.
He rejected suggestions that the Pakistani army and intelligence services are less than fully committed to the war against Al-Qaeda and global terrorism, saying the military "is perhaps the most liberal institution in the country today".
The army, Durrani noted, has suffered 600 deaths in the politically difficult campaign to flush out Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives in the country's tribal provinces on the border.
He said there were signs of rising Islamic fundamentalist activity in the region -- a "blowback" from continuing insecurity across the border in Afghanistan -- but said US and Pakistani officials are planning special reconstruction zones as part of a campaign to undercut the appeal of extremists.
The ambassador said there was "no sympathy" in Pakistan for Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders, but he added it was more likely Osama bin Laden was holed up on the less-populous Afghan side of the border.
"I think if he were in Pakistan, he would be caught by now," he said.