Pakistan may now be on the fasttrack to weaponising spent nuclear fuel through its plutonium reprocessing plant in Chashma in Punjab, according to recent satellite imagery, which indicates that all the ongoing construction around a tall building, suspected to be the reprocessing facility in question, has been completed.
In its report the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a think-tank here, said that while the operational status of this reprocessing plant was yet to be confirmed, “satellite imagery signatures suggest it may have recently become operational, [a development that] would significantly increase Pakistan’s plutonium separation capability and ability to make nuclear weapons.”
Speaking to The Hindu one of the report’s authors, Serena Vergantini, said that ISIS had determined from open source information that there was a plan to build a reprocessing plant at Chashma several years ago although it was difficult to know which building was the reprocessing facility.
However, in 2007 ISIS located a tall building in a site southwest of the Chashma Nuclear Power Complex, which incidentally hosts Chinese-supplied nuclear power reactors, where “a considerable amount of construction” had taken place between 2002 and 2005, including ponds nearby excavated, roads paved and a potential plutonium management building and waste facility built nearby.
The latest satellite imagery obtained by ISIS through Digital Global indicates that all such construction work appears complete, which makes it most likely that the reprocessing facility is “close to complete,” and “possibly operational,” Ms. Vergantini noted.
Last month another ISIS report had hinted that Pakistan may have accelerated its covert nuclear weapons development programme and rendered operational a nuclear reactor structure located at its Khushab plant, some 120 kilometres by road from the Chashma site, and likely producing plutonium at a rapid rate through four reactors there.
However, given the plutonium output from the Khushab reactors Islamabad needed to find a way to chemically separate it from the irradiated reactor fuel, a complex process reuring plutonium reprocessing plants.
When its contract to receive such a plant from France was cancelled by suppliers in France in the mid-1970s owing to concerns about the plant’s potential use to make nuclear weapons, Pakistan constructed a small indigenous facility near Rawalpindi.
Although this facility came online to reprocess plutonium after Pakistan brought into operation its first Khushab reactor in 1998, the three additional reactors there were possibly producing more irradiated fuel than the Rawalpindi plant could handle, prompting the “secret” construction of the Chashma plutonium separation plant.