Pakistan On Nuclear Expansion

Pakistan has begun building what independent experts say appears to be a fourth plutonium-producing reactor at the Khushab nuclear complex, a move that could signal a further escalation in Pakistan's arms race with India.

Commercial satellite photographs taken last month show major new construction at Khushab, a key nuclear installation south-west of Islamabad that generates plutonium for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

The new structure is roughly the same size and shape as two plutonium-producing heavy-water reactors a few hundred metres away in the heavily guarded compound, according to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington organisation that studies nuclear proliferation.

Pakistani officials in Washington, asked about a fourth reactor at Khushab, declined to comment. A US counterproliferation official who reviewed the images declined to comment on the ISIS analysis, but said US intelligence agencies had been monitoring Khushab for years and were ''aware of this facility''.

The new reactor, if verified, would signal another step in Pakistan's ambitious effort to modernise and expand its nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is estimated to have more than 100 deployed weapons - more than India.

The rapid growth of the country's nuclear arsenal has fuelled fears of an escalating arms race in one of the world's most troubled regions. India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars in 60 years, have launched initiatives in recent years to modernise their nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

''Another reactor just hammers the point that Pakistan is determined to make a lot of plutonium for nuclear weapons, frankly far more than they need or is healthy for the region and the world,'' said ISIS president David Albright, a co-author of the report.

Olli Heinonen, former director of safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the reactor was ''worrying, given the unstable situation there''.

Underscoring that warning, a suicide bomber in school uniform attacked soldiers during morning exercises at a Pakistani army training camp, killing 20 troops and wounding 20.

Yesterday's attack in the north-western town of Mardan showed that despite years of army operations against their hideouts along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked fighters retain the ability to strike back. The attack was one of the worst on security forces in recent months.

The bomber's ability to get his explosives into the facility signalled a failure on the part of the military. Such army areas are usually heavily guarded, although an attack on the same training facility in 2006 killed 35 soldiers.

No particular group immediately claimed responsibility, although the Pakistani Taliban have staged such attacks in the past.

The US has encouraged Pakistan to eliminate the Pakistani Taliban.

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