Asian arms race heats up as Pakistan builds new reactor

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The Independent Online

Satellite photographs of what appears to be a nuclear reactor under construction in Pakistan are the latest evidence that President George Bush's foreign policy is fuelling a nuclear arms race in south Asia.

The photographs show a heavy-water reactor capable of producing enough plutonium to make 40-50 nuclear weapons a year, more than 20 times Pakistan's existing capacity, according to the US-based Institute for Science and International Security.

The new pictures come just weeks after a former head of Indian intelligence said that a controversial civilian nuclear fuel deal with the US will allow India to produce 50 warheads a year, by freeing up its existing fuel for military use.

The border between India and Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous nuclear faultlines in the world. The two countries nearly went to war in 2002 - believed by many analysts to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban missile crisis.

The photogrpahs of the construction going on at Pakistan's Khushab nuclear site will add to fears of a nuclear arms race across this border. The pictures are the latest example of what could be termed the "Google Earth effect" - the way in which commercially available satellite photpraphs are making what were once state secrets open knowledge. These photographs, provided by Digital Globe, show a construction site next to Pakistan's sole existing plutonium production reactor. But the new construction dwarfs the existing 50-megawatt reactor. The Institute for Science and International Security believes it has a capacity of 1,000 megawatts or more.

At the moment Pakistan is believed to have 30 to 50 uranium warheads. The new reactor could allow it to make 50 plutonium warheads a year. That would dramatically raise the nuclear stakes in south Asia.

Pakistan declined to deny the institute's analysis. "This ought to be no revelation to anyone because Pakistan is a nuclear weapon state," Tasnim Aslam, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said, but she refused to discuss specific facilities.

But it is not only on the Pakistani side of the border that there are signs of a massive increase in the nuclear arsenal. Last month, JK Sinha, a retired head of India's RAW intelligence service, came out publicly with what observers have long suspected: that the nuclear fuel deal with the US will allow India to increase massively its stock of nuclear weapons.

Under the controversial deal, the US will supply India with nuclear fuel for civilian power-generating purposes, in return for India agreeing to put most of its reactors under international safeguards that would prevent them being used for military purposes.

But. Mr Sinha wrote in Indian Defence Review, that would free India's existing, limited domestic supplies of nuclear fuel to be used exclusively in the six reactors that will remain outside international safeguards, for military purposes.

The nuclear deal is at the centrepiece of Mr Bush's attempts to forge a strategic alliance with India as a counterweight to the growing power of China - and, for some, strengthening India militarily has always been part of the agenda.

"Why should the US want to check India's missile capability in ways that could lead to China's permanent nuclear dominance over democratic India," Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India who is now lobbying for the nuclear deal, has said.

But the prime nuclear rivalry in Asia remains between India and Pakistan, and some observers fear the US may be exacerbating a nuclear arms race between them. Any sign of an expanding nuclear capacity in Pakistan will raise proliferation concerns, with memories of the A Q Khan scandal still fresh. Dr Khan, the scientist known as the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, was found to be providing nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea. At least one leading Pakistani journalist has said that Dr Khan must have had sanction from within the Pakistani state. The American-based analysts said that Pakistan did not appear to be in a hurry to complete it, or interested in hiding the reactor.