July 24, 2006

Pakistan nuclear expansion raises US concerns

By Carol Giacomo and Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pakistan is building a new nuclear
reactor that could produce enough plutonium for 40 to 50
nuclear weapons a year in what would be a major expansion of
its nuclear program and could prompt an intensified arms race
in South Asia, a report said Monday.

But U.S. officials and congressional aides, who confirmed
the Pakistani plan, said it was unlikely to derail a nuclear
cooperation accord with India or the sale of U.S.-made F-16
jets to Islamabad.

News of the planned new Pakistani facility was confirmed as
the U.S. Congress faced targets for action this week on both an
Indian cooperation accord and the F-16s deal.

"We have been aware of these plans, and we discourage any
use of that facility for military purposes such as weapons
development," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters.

He said the administration "discourage(s) expansion and
modernization of nuclear weapons programs, both of India and
Pakistan," nuclear rivals who refused to sign the nuclear
Non-proliferation Treaty.

While U.S. officials knew about the reactor project,
congressional aides said Congress was largely unaware until a
report in the Washington Post on Monday citing an analysis of
satellite photos and other data by the Washington-based
Institute for Science and International Security.

The analysis concluded Pakistan was building a second
larger heavy water reactor at its Khushab complex that could
produce enough plutonium for 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year.

Construction apparently began sometime after March 2000.
But the analysis said Pakistan did not appear to be hastening
completion, possibly due to shortages of reactor components or
weapons production infrastructure.

The administration preferred to keep the project quiet
because public disclosure "probably will aggravate concerns in
India" as well as on Capitol Hill, one U.S. official said.

Congress this week faces a deadline for acting if it wants
to block administration plans to sell Pakistan up to 36 F-16C/D
Block 50/52 Falcon fighters built by Lockheed Martin Corp. in a
deal potentially worth up to $5 billion.

Some lawmakers are concerned about Pakistan's past nuclear
proliferation record and fear the warplane technology could be
leaked to China, Pakistan's close ally.

Congress could block the sale by enacting a resolution of
disapproval in both houses within 30 days of the June 28
notification date, but such action is rare.

But to survive a presidential veto, the legislation would
have to pass both houses with a two-thirds majority.

"The reality ...is that it's very difficult to pass a
resolution of disapproval," said Rachel Stohl of the Center for
Defense Information.

Added a congressional aide: "There should be no effect on
the sale of F-16s (because of the new reactor). So far there
seem to be no major obstacles to the sale.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday is to take
the first of two key votes on the U.S.-India nuclear deal,
which would permit sales of American nuclear fuel and reactors
to New Delhi for the first time in 30 years. U.S. officials and
congressional aides expect the deal to be approved.

However, Democratic Rep. Edward Markey, an administration
critic, said: "The nuclear arms race in South Asia is about to
ignite, and ... the Bush Administration is throwing fuel on the
fire. If either India or Pakistan starts increasing its nuclear
arsenal, the other side will respond in kind; and the Bush
Administration's proposed nuclear deal with India is making
that much more likely."

He and other lawmakers accused the State Department of
withholding until after the vote an embarrassing report which
will show Indian entities have sold or received weapons of mass
destruction technology from Iran or Syria. A department
spokesman said the report would be out "shortly."

(additional reporting by Steve Holland))