Tracking highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the key nuclear weapon materials

Pakistan may have completed new plutonium production reactor, Khushab-II

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On 20 February, Pakistan's Prime Minister visited the Khushab nuclear complex, along with senior military officers and top officials from the country's nuclear weapons program. The Prime Minister is reported to have congratulated Khushab engineers for completing important projects, announced one month bonus pay, and approved new projects. He was accompanied by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director General of the Strategic Plans Division, and the Chairman of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.

The Prime Minister's visit may mark the completion of work on Pakistan's second plutonium production reactor. Khushab is the home of the country's first plutonium production reactor (Khushab-I), which started work in 1998, and is the site where two new reactors are under construction. The construction of Khushab II appears from satellite imagery to have started in 2001-2002, while work on Khushab III seems to have started in 2005 or 2006.

The two new reactor buildings appear to be identical to each other but different from Khushab-I and there has been a debate whether the new reactors are much more powerful than the 50 MWt Khushab-I reactor. However, Khushab-II seems to have cooling towers similar to those of Khushab-I suggesting they are of comparable power. The New York Times reported U.S. government sources as suggesting that "the emerging reactor appeared to be roughly the same size as the small one [i.e. Khushab-I] Pakistan currently uses to make plutonium for its nuclear program."

If Khushab-II is the same power as Khushab-I, and both continue to operate, then Pakistan will be able to double its current rate of plutonium production for weapons. Together the two reactors, operating at 70 percent capacity, would produce about 22 kg of weapon grade plutonium per year.

The plutonium from Khushab-II would become available about a year after the reactor comes on-line, allowing time to irradiate the fuel and then cool it before reprocessing it to separate the plutonium.

UPDATE 03/24/10: ISIS published an analysis of satellite images that show steam in the cooling towers of the Kushab-II reactor. This indicates that the reactor was operating in December 2009, when the image was taken.  

(For more on Pakistan and India's nuclear weapon programs and Pakistan's demands for a US-Pakistan nuclear deal similar to the US-India deal, see IPFM Research Report.)

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Albright et al may not like to believe this, but as an experienced EPC man I can tell you that No. 2 seems to be nowhere near operational. The site is too unprepared, with rubble lying right next to the main reactor building, the control buildings to the west of the reactor are far from complete and most importantly, the HT switchyard looks far from operational or connected. I think at the very most some unit testing of plant components may have started.

Of bombs, economy and realpolitik

Who stirs the South Asian pot? Islamabad has allegedly the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, fuels the South Asian arms race and blocks FMCT negotiations at Geneva. Satellite images in the recent ISIS report indicate a fourth military reactor is coming up at the Khushab nuclear site. Knowledgeable and the unlettered wonder why must an economically fragile and internally weak Pakistan even contemplate playing games that are the province of the waning, resurging and emerging powers? Isn't Pakistan's existing arsenal enough to deter or destroy an adversary? Let’s see if these assertions are based on facts and understand the dangers of South Asian arms race whose effects will spread beyond the region. A deeper look and numbers crunching will tell why the perceptions are different than reality.
The reports on asymmetry in nuclear weapons arsenals since negotiations at Conference on Disarmament started last month are geopolitically motivated. It is interesting to note that scratching Khushab’s surface rung alarm bells and inauguration of the huge Tarapur nuclear fuel reprocessing plant only days before ISIS report made no ripples. Why? Western military industrial complexes fuel the economy, wield political clout and compel their governments to sell sensitive technology to eager and conflict prone states. Nonproliferation norms and risks of exacerbating arms race don’t come in the way geopolitical and politico-economic interests. It is fair game.
A comparison of the fissile materials and warheads of nine states with nuclear weapons dispels the perceptions. The December 2010 International Panel for Fissile Materials report (IPFM) holds that the global stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) was almost 1475 metric tons, worth more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. About 90% of this material is held by Russia and the U.S. Their military needs are not compromised in the process. Non P5 states only possess 20 tons of HEU.
Similarly, global stockpile of plutonium is almost 485 tons and nearly half of it is used for weapons. P5 hold almost 98 percent of the global stocks and stopped producing weapon-grade plutonium decades ago because Cold War ended and their economic constraints dictated so. Though Israel, India, and Pakistan are increasing their plutonium stocks, these are a mite in the cheese compared to the P5.
U.S. has about 9400 nuclear warheads and it is yet to deliver on its promise to dismantle about 4500. Russia possesses about 10,000, France 300, U.K. 225, China almost 240, Israel 200, Pakistan 70 - 90, India 60 - 80 and North Korea fewer than 5. Recently concluded New START bilaterally binds Russia and the U.S. to reduce only the 'deployed' strategic warheads to mere 1550 by year 2018. Smartly enough, the change is in deployment status and there is no talk of dismantling the weapons. Even if dismantling occurs, where will the warheads’ fissile material go? Their insignificant reduction process is as good as the alleged appreciation in Pakistan’s stocks and warheads.
For a reduction in arsenals, a child will demand 'nuclear zero', a grownup will talk of 'nuclear parity' – coming down to the numbers of the least powerful – and clever will understand that security cannot be traded with moralities. Hence both weaker and strong states will seek arms control instead of disarmament.
Recently U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) budgetary demands reveal that big power nuclear programs are swelling too. DoE seeks an exponential 19.2% budgetary increase for nuclear weapons program from $ 9.8736 bn of 2010 to $ 11.782 bn for 2012. Will American tax payers question why these additional bucks won't go towards health care, raising new jobs or in aid to poor countries? Is that the way to global 'nuclear zero'?
Returning to the vaunted question of who has the fastest growing plutonium-based program in South Asia and why? The IPFM report accurately depicts that India's Dhruva produces 17.8 kg and CIRUS reactor used to produce 7.1 kg of weapon-grade plutonium every year. India has produced 630 kg to-date that means 126 warheads. Tarapur reprocessing plant has replaced CIRUS and it has 100-ton annual fuel reprocessing capacity. Besides this India can also get 95 kg of weapon-grade plutonium – 13 warheads - every year from its eight power reactors that IAEA cannot watch.
Pakistan can produce between 7 to 9 kg plutonium per year from its existing Khushab reactors, which equals 2 warheads a year. The upcoming reactors will have similar production capacity once they are fully operative by 2014-2015. Pakistan has produced up to 100 kg weapon-grade plutonium since 1998 that means 18 to 25 bombs. This highly simplified comparison shows that the Indian giant will starve on what surfeits the Pakistani dwarf.
Why should Pakistan and India pursue bigger arsenals once a single bomb would be enough to inflict irreparable damage? To both security lies in their threat perceptions based on actual capabilities rather than intent of their adversarial relationships. Security paradigms cannot be quantified and hence no agreements on how many bombs are enough. India ostensibly pursues a 400 weapons-based triad. Should the people of Pakistan take a moral high ground by not responding? It is sensible to expect the more powerful states to scale down production and acquisition of force multipliers for others to take heed.
Nations do what it takes to address their mutual asymmetries and use propaganda to shape domestic and international opinion, which are part of realpolitik. The South Asian animus has stiffened since U.S. signed ‘not so civil’ nuclear energy agreement with India in 2006 and it has allowed New Delhi to expand its military power. It is not out of hate for Pakistan but primarily because India is a big market and can pay its bills.
So what should Pakistan do? It takes some steps to militarily deter India. Has it done so in economics? Pakistan has to take steps to pay its bills and create incentives for the investors. PAEC and nuclear establishment cannot be as helpful as the economists, politicians, businessmen, academics and the commoners. To deter external aggression and bring internal stability, Pakistan needs a synergistic effort of all stake holders. It economy, stupid!

Zahir Kazmi is a research scholar at the Department of Strategic & Nuclear Studies, NDU Islamabad.

Zahir: Thanks for the comment (in the future, however, I would appreciate it if you could keep comments brief and to the point - long comments make the discussion very difficult to read).

It is understandable that the discussion in Pakistan is framed in terms of parity with India, but I think the question to ask here is whether it's a reasonable goal.

I would also not that you did not mention Pakistan's HEU stock - more than 2 tonnes by the latest IPFM estimate.

There is a deeper assesment in Pakistan with regards to its current policy on fissile materials apart from the Indian argument.

In my view, High tech dual use technology inflow in space program cooperation, sophisticated conventional arms sales worth billion of dollars by major powers, offensive military doctrines, global trends of waning multilateralism and the rise of exceptionalism or the "coalition of the willings" and hostile presence of extra-regional forces in the region are broad parameters which defines Pakistan current posture.

Moreover there is no genuine urge from international powers for complete, nondiscriminatory and verfiable nuclear disarmament. If that would have been the case then P-5, particularly US, must have supported issues of existing stock piles at CD. So i think the issue of stock piles must be seen in a broader spectrum.