Pakistan Needs Help to Make Plutonium and Tritium

Pakistan is building a secret reactor that closely resembles the reactor India used to make its first atomic bomb, a U.S. official says. The former head of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission, Munir Ahmad Khan, claims the reactor at Khusab is being built by Pakistani scientists without foreign expertise. U.S. officials however say China is helping, and a Pentagon study confirms that Pakistan has “limited capability” to build a reactor on its own.

A senior U.S. official says the reactor’s design has “been around forever.” He believes the reactor will operate at a power of about 40 megawatts, similar to India’s Cirus reactor, which runs on heavy water and natural uranium. Any plutonium made at Khusab would be legally free for atomic bombs but would have to be processed into weapon-ready form. During the 1970s, Pakistan acquired experimental plutonium processing technology from European firms and used French procurement lists and specifications in an attempt to purchase components. Nevertheless, Pakistan has not yet mastered plutonium extraction technology, though it built a small plant called “New Labs” in the mid-1980s.

In addition to making plutonium, the Khusab reactor could help Pakistan produce tritium, an element that can boost the yield of atomic bombs. Pakistan has already experimented with producing tritium by irradiating lithium targets in a small U.S.-supplied research reactor. Pakistan’s interest in tritium research was revealed in the 1980s when it imported components for a tritium purification plant from German firms. Pakistan also tried to buy from Germany 30 tons of aluminum tubing that could be used to clad lithium for irradiation in a reactor to make tritium.

Pakistan is probably shopping for foreign supplies to complete the Khusab reactor. A 1992 U.S. Defense Department study, the Militarily Critical Technology List, found that Pakistan has “limited capability” to build a reactor on its own. The study also found that Pakistan could use help in acquiring or making most important nuclear materials, including beryllium, boron carbide, hafnium, zirconium, lithium, graphite and high-purity bismuth. The study indicates that Pakistan also lacks critical production and testing equipment for nuclear components. Useful items would include vibration test equipment, furnaces, multi-stage light gas guns, transient recorders, oscilloscopes, flash X-ray equipment, capacitors and pulse generators. High-speed computers and sophisticated electronics would also be helpful.