WASHINGTON — Pakistan is expanding its nuclear weapons program even as Islamic extremists in northwest Pakistan advance in the direction of several highly sensitive nuclear-related sites, U.S. officials and other experts said this week.
Pakistan's government is completing two new nuclear reactors to produce plutonium for weapons that would be smaller, lighter and more efficient than the 60-odd highly enriched uranium-fueled warheads that Pakistan is now thought to possess, the officials and experts said.
"In the current climate, with Pakistan's leadership under duress from daily acts of violence by insurgent Taliban forces and organized political opposition, the security of any nuclear material produced in these reactors is in question," said an April 23 report by the Institute for Science and International Security.
Some of the officials and experts are more worried that Islamic radicals or sympathizers inside Pakistan's military might get their hands on radioactive material that could be used to make a crude dirty bomb than they are about a theft of one of the heavily guarded weapons themselves.
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The two new plutonium production reactors are being built next to a reactor at Khushab, about 160 miles southwest of Islamabad, the capital, that's been operating since 1998. It's on the heartland Punjab Province's northern border with the restive North West Frontier Province, much of which is under the Taliban's control or influence.
David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said that commercial satellite pictures taken of the Khushab site in January appear to show one reactor all but complete, and the other having its roof installed.
Pakistan also has a number of important military-industrial complexes, including the Gadwal Uranium Enrichment Plant, where the final enrichment of uranium weapons fuel is thought to take place, less than 60 miles south of Buner, where the Pakistani military is battling the Taliban.
Close to Gadwal is the Kamra Air Weapons Complex, which designs and produces aircraft and conventional bombs, but also is thought to have links to nuclear arms. A suicide bomber blew himself up outside the complex in December 2007, injuring five children.
With al Qaida-allied militants solidifying their grip on the Swat Valley on Buner's northern boundary, their first stronghold outside the tribal area bordering Afghanistan, and active in key cities, including Islamabad, the construction of the two new reactors has added to U.S. concerns about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons production facilities.
"Clearly we have a rising threat level," said a U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "I don't think it likely that the jihadists will make a mad dash tomorrow (to seize a nuclear site). But in the course of time, I see a rising threat."
U.S. officials and experts said that they remain confident for now that the Pakistani military, which maintains a special 10,000-man force to guard its nuclear facilities, is taking extraordinary steps to protect its nuclear sites, as well as the warheads themselves.
"The Pakistani army recognizes the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands. We have strong military-to-military cooperation," President Barack Obama asserted at a news conference on Wednesday.
Pakistan's aircraft-dropped and missile-launched weapons reportedly are kept unassembled, with their nuclear cores stored separately from their conventional explosive triggers. They also are fitted with highly classified U.S.-designed security devices that require two people to enter firing codes.
The senior U.S. defense official declined to discuss how the United States would react if militants seized a Pakistani nuclear facility. However, he added: "We have to have a strategy to deal with that. You can be certain that kind of planning is ongoing."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was less sanguine than the president. She said that the insurgency now poses a "mortal threat" to the United States and the world.
"If the worst, the unthinkable, were to happen, and this advancing Taliban encouraged and supported by al Qaida and other extremists were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan," she said in an April 26 interview with Fox News.
Some U.S. officials and experts, noting that security has been problematic even at some U.S. nuclear facilities, said they doubted that Pakistan's system is foolproof.
"Continued instability in the country could impact these safeguards," said an April 1 Congressional Research Service report.
The fear that jihadists might obtain radioactive material for a dirty bomb is heightened by concern about a potential "insider threat" amid intelligence reports of strong Islamic and anti-American sentiment within the Pakistani officer corps, which had no exchange programs with the United States for a decade prior to 2002 due to U.S. nuclear sanctions, they said.
"There is a rising tide of jihadist sympathizers within the Pakistani military," asserted the U.S. defense official.
Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, said the United States "hasn't engaged Pakistan . . . in years" in discussions on the expansion of its nuclear weapons program. He said the Obama administration should make it a priority to convince Pakistan to join international negotiations on a global agreement to end the production of nuclear weapons fuel.
"There are (U.S. officials) who are convinced that things aren't so good. There has just been a happy face put on it," he said.
"No one has an incentive to embarrass the Pakistanis" when their cooperation on fighting al Qaida and other Islamic terrorist groups takes priority, he said.
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