Exclusive satellite imagery exposes a new nuclear facility in Khushab, Pakistan—which now has the fastest-growing nuclear program in the world. The facility was undetectable in satellite images take as recently as December 2009. Pictured directly above the circled area are two white boxes which are also nuclear reactors.
Even in the best of times, Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program warrants alarm. But these are perilous days. At a moment of unprecedented misgiving between Washington and Islamabad, new evidence suggests that Pakistan’s nuclear program is barreling ahead at a furious clip.
According to new commercial-satellite imagery obtained exclusively by NEWSWEEK, Pakistan is aggressively accelerating construction at the Khushab nuclear site, about 140 miles south of Islamabad. The images, analysts say, prove Pakistan will soon have a fourth operational reactor, greatly expanding plutonium production for its nuclear-weapons program.
“The buildup is remarkable,” says Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security. “And that nobody in the U.S. or in the Pakistani government says anything about this—especially in this day and age—is perplexing.”
Unlike Iran, which has yet to produce highly enriched uranium, or North Korea, which has produced plutonium but still lacks any real weapons capability, Pakistan is significantly ramping up its nuclear-weapons program. Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, puts it bluntly: “You’re talking about Pakistan even potentially passing France at some point. That’s extraordinary.”
Pakistani officials say the buildup is a response to the threat from India, which is spending $50 billion over the next five years on its military. “But to say it’s just an issue between just India and Pakistan is divorced from reality,” says former senator Sam Nunn, who co-chairs the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “The U.S. and Soviet Union went through 40 years of the Cold War and came out every time from dangerous situations with lessons learned. Pakistan and India have gone through some dangerous times, and they have learned some lessons. But not all of them. Today, deterrence has fundamentally changed. The whole globe has a stake in this. It’s extremely dangerous.”
It’s dangerous because Pakistan is also stockpiling fissile material, or bomb fuel. Since Islamabad can mine uranium on its own territory and has decades of enrichment know-how—beginning with the work of nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan—the potential for production is significant.
Although the White House declined to comment, a senior U.S. congressional official who works on nuclear issues told NEWSWEEK that intelligence estimates suggest Pakistan has already developed enough fissile material to produce more than 100 warheads and manufacture between eight and 20 weapons a year. “There’s no question,” the official says, “it’s the fastest-growing program in the world.”
A Defense Department official told NEWSWEEK that the U.S. government is “confident that Pakistan has taken appropriate steps toward securing its nuclear arsenal.” But beyond palliatives, few in Washington want to openly discuss the nightmare scenario of terrorists getting hold of nuclear material or weapons. “The less that is said publicly, the better,” says Stephen Hadley, national-security adviser to President George W. Bush. “But don’t confuse the lack of public discussion for a lack of concern.”
Compiled with Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists
The bomb lends the Pakistanis a certain diplomatic insouciance. Nukes, after all, are a valuable political tool, ensuring continued economic aid from the United States and Europe. “Pakistan knows it can outstare” the West, says Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy.