Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Tuesday, July 25, 2006
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday the administration did not want Pakistan to use a new nuclear reactor reportedly under construction "for military purposes such as weapons development."
He was commenting after the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) released a report showing satellite images of work evidently underway at the Khushab nuclear complex in Pakistan's Punjab province. The complex is home to a 50 MW reactor built with Chinese help and active since 1998, the year that Pakistan and India conducted their first successful nuclear tests.
Analysts at the think tank said that a new reactor being built at Khushab -- work began after 2000 and apparently is continuing, although in no hurry -- could produce more than 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium a year, enough for "over 40-50 nuclear weapons a year."
(Estimates of existing Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons arsenals range widely, with some experts saying they may have 50 or so warheads each.)
The ISIS report's co-authors, David Albright and Paul Brannan, speculated that awareness of the Pakistan development may have prompted India to increase its own plutonium production capacity.
They noted that, in negotiations between India and the U.S. over their bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, India was insisting on keeping a major reprocessing facility and a large number of nuclear reactors outside of safeguards.
"South Asia may be heading for a nuclear arms race that could lead to arsenals growing into the hundreds of nuclear weapons, or at a minimum vastly expanded stockpiles of military fissile material," Albright and Brannan said.
In Pakistan, foreign office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam told a weekly media briefing that "there should be no excitement" about the report on its nuclear program expanding.
"This ought to be no revelation to anyone because Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state," she said, although declined to comment about the specifics of the Khushab facilities.
While India, Pakistan's longstanding rival, might be expected to be the nation most concerned about Islamabad building more nuclear weapons, there was no immediate reaction by the Indian government and a number of Indian commentators and media reacted skeptically to the ISIS report.
"What's so new about it?" said one newspaper headline Tuesday while another wondered whether the report was an attempt to "bomb India's N-deal" with Washington. Yet another thought it was all a "big dupe."
Several reports predicted that the ISIS report and analysis would be embraced by opponents of the Indo-U.S. agreement, signed a year ago by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Under the deal, the U.S. will supply India with fuel and technology for its nuclear energy sector, in return for Indian steps to place its civilian nuclear facilities under international safeguards.
The pact requires Congressional approval, and enabling legislation has been inching slowly through the legislative process. It is due to be debated on the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday, and assistant secretary of state for South Asia Richard Boucher said last week the pact could be finalized by year's end.
U.S. non-proliferation experts have argued strongly against the deal, saying that by giving India preferential treatment the administration was sending the wrong message to other countries that may want to develop nuclear weapons.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a leading critic of the agreement, used the ISIS report to attack the administration's policies
"The nuclear arms race in South Asia is about to ignite, and instead of doing everything possible to stop this vicious cycle, the Bush administration is throwing fuel on the fire," he said in a statement Monday.
"If either India or Pakistan starts increasing its nuclear arsenal, the other side will respond in kind; and the Bush administration's proposed nuclear deal with India is making that much more likely."
Markey, who is co-chair of a bipartisan nonproliferation taskforce, said Bush should negotiate a verifiable treaty to permanently cap global stockpiles of bomb-making material.
"Bush also needs to press both India and Pakistan to agree to suspend production of bomb-grade fissile materials while such a cut-off treaty is being negotiated."
Indian media expected a similar response from critics in India, where Singh also faces strong opposition. Indian leftists have accused him of getting too cozy with Washington, while some security analysts, eyeing Pakistan, argue that the agreement may constrain India's nuclear weapons capability.
"Political parties looking for an excuse to go after the Manmohan Singh government on the nuclear deal could find this [ISIS] report good fodder," said the Times of India.
"The real target of the report seems to be the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal," commented the Hindustan Times. "One co-author of the report, David Albright, has been one of the most strident voices against the deal."
"The release of the report appears to have been calibrated to scuttle the deal," said Daily News and Analysis, another Indian news organization.
It quoted an unnamed Indian government official as saying that Albright, who opposes the pact, appeared to be "trying to frighten lawmakers and raising fresh doubts about the wisdom of going ahead with the civilian nuclear agreement."
Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, former head of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi said the Pakistani development, being carried out with Chinese help, was "old hat," long known by the U.S. and India.
The Times of India quoted Ashley Tellis, an Indian-born strategic analyst and strong supporter of the Indo-U.S. agreement, as saying that while Pakistan was serious about developing plutonium-based warheads, "to deduce from a half-constructed plutonium production reactor scenarios of a high-octane regional nuclear arms race is seriously misleading."
Anupam Srivastava of the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia acknowledged that the ISIS report would be used by critics of the U.S.-India nuclear deal.
But he argued that the deal and Pakistan's nuclear build-up should be viewed as two separate issues.
Pakistan has long been seeking to develop plutonium-based weapons, which were lighter and more compact than the uranium-based ones currently in its arsenal, "making them easier to mount on the cone of a missile," he said.
Having them would enhance Pakistan's strike options with regard to India.
"Pakistan's nuclear weapons build-up is independent of the U.S.-India nuclear deal," Srivastava said. "Instead it should be pressed to stop using brinkmanship in its nuclear policy. India and Pakistan could look at technical confidence building measures to enhance crisis stability and reduce regional nuclear dangers."
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