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A plutonium plant?

There is more to reports in the Washington Post about plutonium reactors being set up in Pakistan than what meets the eye. Among other things, the reports say that Pakistan is "building a powerful new reactor for producing plutonium," which, if true, would "signal a major expansion of the country's nuclear capabilities and a potential new escalation in the region's arms race." Islamabad has reportedly "declined to comment on (the) specific programmes at the Khushab nuclear weapons facility" but has said that there was nothing secret about its existence.

Strategic shift

The issue is of critical importance because, if the Washington Post report is true, it would mean a strategic shift in the nuclear-deterrence balance in the sub-continent and also lead to a major change in the perception of Pakistan as a nuclear entity of some consequence among the acknowledged nuclear-weapons powers. Whether this would ultimately lead to confirmation that Pakistan too be counted as a `rogue' nuclear weapons-state is uncertain (given Washington's ambivalent stand vis--vis everything relating to Pakistan).

But the fact remains, in the eyes of the world, India's position — stemming from its intrinsically stronger presence on the world map vis--vis Pakistan — would be disturbed by a wholly artificial and contrived development which the nation can well do without.

The report quotes Washington-based nuclear experts as saying that satellite photos have indicated the building of a heavy-water reactor at Pakistan's Khushab nuclear site which, after completion, will be capable of producing enough plutonium for 40-50 more efficient nuclear warheads every year, that is, a 20-fold increase in that country's nuclear-weapons capability.

Even if the expansion of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons profile is by a smaller multiple, the implications for India's military security and diplomacy are clear, which merely emphasises the point that the Washington Post report should not be ignored by the Indian authorities.

Timing of revelation

New Delhi has of course known all along about the Khushab facility, probably also about the expanded programme that has been reported. If this is so, the important "revelation" is its timing which, common sense would suggest, has a great deal to do with the ongoing US process of converting the India-US nuclear understanding into legislative reality. Would it be a friend of the deal or a foe who would engineer the "revelation" at this precise juncture?

Clearly, if the import of the news report is to focus on an impending nuclear-arms race in the sub-continent, then the effort of the world should be to prevent it from happening. What this would mean is to control New Delhi's response, which will imply keeping a closer watch on the country's military nuclear facilities.

The India-US nuclear understanding leaves the military establishments out of the purview of the accord which, given the Khushab revelations, would turn out to be a huge negative point for nuclear arms-race enthusiasts and, therefore, an equally powerful plus point for the lobby which is campaigning against the accord.

Pakistan is against the India-US nuclear deal, and it would not be a total surprise to learn that The Washington Post story has in fact been leaked by sources close to Islamabad. Which of course would not prevent the latter from denying the story as a figment of someone's imagination, thereby killing two birds with one stone!

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

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