Satellite images show that Pakistan is building a new nuclear reactor that can produce weapons-grade plutonium, an American watchdog group said on Thursday, warning that it could contribute to an atomic arms race with archrival India.
A picture taken on June 3 shows work progressing rapidly on the reactor at the Khushab nuclear site, 170 kilometers southwest of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, the Institute of Science for International Security said.
The development of the reactor and other nuclear-related activities "imply" that Pakistan has decided to "increase significantly its production of plutonium for nuclear weapons," the Washington-based institute said in a report analysing the images.
A senior official at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Authority said the country was "extending our infrastructure," but declined to address the details of the report.
"We are a declared nuclear state and we are pursuing our nuclear programme for peaceful purposes," said the official, who asked that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. "We are doing it for our national interests."
Pakistan has stated repeatedly that it will develop its secretive nuclear programme and maintain an atomic arsenal to deter India, its more powerful neighbor, despite past leaks of sensitive technology to countries including Iran.
The report, co-authored by former UN inspector David Albright, said Pakistan may have decided to produce more plutonium for lighter warheads for cruise missiles, or to upgrade weapons aimed at Indian cities.
Most Pakistani nuclear weapons use highly enriched uranium, the report noted.
Albright said the work on the reactor shows that the country is trying to improve its nuclear capabilities with a "new generation" of plutonium-based weapons.
Plutonium-based weapons pack more explosive power into smaller, lighter packages than those made with uranium, which Pakistan has been using for years, according to Albright.
"The work on these reactors reflects a Pakistani decision to create a new generation of nuclear weapons. By going plutonium ... We have to interpret that as an attempt to make smaller, more powerful weapons that are going to be more destructive in India," Albright said in a telephone interview.
The Pakistani official declined to comment on what Pakistan might do with extra plutonium.
The report said that, with India also trying to expand its ability to enrich uranium, Pakistan's activities "should be viewed as a sign of an accelerated nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan."
It also accused the US government of soft-pedaling the risk to avoid endangering Islamabad's cooperation against terrorism and a proposed nuclear pact with New Delhi.
"The bottom line for us is that the US isn't doing enough to stop these countries from expanding their nuclear arsenals. They're turning a blind eye," said Albright.
The institute said it used commercially available satellite imagery to conclude that Pakistan was building a third nuclear reactor at Khushab.
A first reactor entered service in 1998, and a second one begun between 2000 and 2002 was still under construction earlier this month, it said in the report. The third and newest reactor has sprung up rapidly just a few hundred meters (yards) away, it said.
The images also purportedly show work progressing on a plutonium reprocessing facility at Chashma, 80 kilometers to the west.
A report by the same institute about the second reactor at Khushab saying it could eventually produce enough fissile material for 50 atomic bombs a year prompted the US government last July to urge Pakistan not to expand its nuclear weapons programme.
Pakistan conducted its only nuclear tests in May 1998 after Indian tests earlier that month. India detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1974.
The two countries came close to open conflict in 2002, fueling fear of the world's first nuclear exchange, after terrorists attacked India's Parliament.
New Delhi accused Islamabad-backed militants of carrying out the attack, but Pakistan denied the claims. Both countries have since embarked on a stop-start peace process.
In February 2004, Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered to be the father of Pakistan's atomic programme, confessed to giving nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
President Pervez Musharraf pardoned Khan and US officials regularly praise Islamabad's role in helping prevent nuclear smuggling.