27 June 2017

*** Likely uranium facility identified in Pakistan in satellite imagery

June 26, 2017

New Delhi Times 

Key Points
Although Pakistan has most visibly expanded its plutonium production infrastructure, the country retains a uranium enrichment capability at the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in Kahuta.

Pakistan’s illicit procurement of nuclear dual-use items relevant for uranium enrichment prompted an investigation and identification of a suspected new enrichment facility.
Using commercial satellite imagery, it has been confirmed that new construction at Kahuta is consistent with a uranium enrichment facility.

Pakistanis continuing to broaden its nuclear weapons programme. and expanding activity at Khan Research Laboratories in Kahuta along with a development of a likely new uranium enrichment facility.

As Pakistan continues to refine and enhance its nuclear capability, Pakistani officials insist that such modernisation efforts are the result of indigenous production and that, since the dismantling of the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear smuggling network in the early 2000s, the country has had a strong non-proliferation record.

Nevertheless, new analysis suggests that Pakistan remains reliant on obtaining dual-use goods through a global network of front companies and covert overseas agents for at least some dual-use items. New construction at the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) site at Kahuta, in the northeastern Punjab province has been examined.

It is premature to definitively conclude the function and purpose of the new building from imagery alone. However, its light frame structure and layout of wide bays are wholly consistent with that of a centrifuge plant for uranium enrichment. If confirmed, it suggests thatPakistan is probably expanding its uranium enrichment capability, possibly in support of its nuclear weapons programme.

Possible foreign procurement
In 2004, it was publicly revealed that AQ Khan, considered to be the father ofPakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, had secretly sold nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. In doing so, he had transformed the network used to secretly import nuclear equipment for Pakistan’s national nuclear programme into a large and sophisticated exporter of black market nuclear technology for personal gain.

Information uncovered suggests that despite the removal of AQ Khan from Pakistan’s nuclear programme, the country continues to covertly purchase dual-use technology from abroad for its nuclear and missile programmes on a large scale.

The term ‘dual-use’ refers to items that have civilian and military purposes, and in this instance includes specialty materials suitable for use in the construction or expansion of uranium enrichment-related facilities, including vacuum pumps, stainless steel piping, bellows-sealed valves, and perfluorinated materials resistant to uranium hexafluoride (UF6). All of these may be relevant to a new uranium enrichment facility that uses the centrifuge method.

Although it cannot be conclusively stated that any centrifuge-relevant procurement will be used in a centrifuge programme, it nonetheless suggests that the country continues to obtain foreign technology covertly, despite Pakistani rhetoric regarding the self-sufficiency of its strategic programmes. Since the AQ Khan smuggling revelations, Pakistan has maintained a system of export controls that is likely to be largely in line with international standards, and has sought to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – a group of countries with nuclear technology that seeks to prevent nuclear proliferation by controlling the export of materials relevant to nuclear weapons, equipment, and technology.

The apparent scale of Pakistan’s illicit procurement and the expansion of its nuclear and missile programmes, could raise questions about Pakistan’s credentials to join the NSG.

Kahuta revisited
Apparent procurement of centrifuge-relevant equipment led to investigate new construction around existing centrifuge sites. The area of interest is approximately 1.2 hectares and is located within the secure area of the KRL site, in the south-western part of the complex. Roughly rectangular in shape and approximately 140 m by 80 m, it is surrounded by scrubland and trees that provide an additional measure of security on the ground.
The site is a former cricket ground which, until November 2013, had been used as a recreational facility. Floodlights, sight screens, and pitch covers on the wicket are present in commercially available imagery, although by May 2014, clearance had begun at the site, with a small number of buildings at the south-western end demolished. By November, a large concrete batch plant and ballast store had been established, while grading and levelling had also taken place in the central areas of the site.

Preparatory work continued into 2015, and commercial imagery from 28 September 2015 revealed that work on a large building structure had commenced, with a multi-bay steel frame structure visible. Bays are structurally defined areas and may be used for a variety of equipment installations or machinery. At this time, 12 bays were visible.

Within this structure, the steel support beams have an approximate length of 11.5 m, suggesting that when completed, the main structure will have a height of around 11 m. Imagery from late 2015 also showed that by this time, all footings were complete and vertical steel support elements were being installed. Generally, for most bays in this structure, the footings are placed 9.0 m apart or closer at 4.5 m. The spacing of footings in the two bays at the north-eastern end of the structure and the whole outer south-eastern façade of the structure indicates a requirement for greater load-bearing capacity and greater strength, possibly to house or accommodate heavier ancillary equipment.

Although no modern structural techniques are visible to compensate for the area’s seismic activity, footings in all cases appear to be substantial, with considerable quantities of ballast visible at the concrete batch plant area. This suggests that the structure’s foundations are also likely to be substantial.

The first footings being emplaced for a second, probable support building (70 m by 15 m) were also visible in the western corner of the site, parallel to the north side perimeter, in commercial imagery on 18 April 2016.

Site analysis

Imagery from 18 April 2016 showed that the footings for another eight bays had been emplaced at the southwest end of the main structure. This brought the total number of bays within the new building to 20. The majority of bays appear to be a standard size of 65 m by 16 m, giving an area of 1,040 m2 per bay, although bays at the north-eastern and south-western ends of the structure are slightly smaller: each measure 65 m by 10 m for a floor space of 650 m2. When complete, the new building will measure 286 m in length by 65 m wide.

In addition to this basic floor plan, it appears that there will be single and two-storey bays. For example, in imagery from 16 December 2015, a lower sun angle and more definitive shadows meant that it was possible to discern that the raised floor structure in Bay One had been completed. The shadow of an upper floor structure fell markedly onto the ground level of the End Bay, on which a concrete screed had been laid and was distinctly shortened.

Possible Pakistani centrifuge designs and outputsDesignBased onLength (m)Rotor diameter (cm)SWUP-1SNOR/CNOR2101-3P-2G21155P-3URENCO 4M2–11.6P-4SLM/Unknown3.21521Source: Based on Alexander Glaser, ‘Characteristics of the Gas Centrifuge for Uranium Enrichment and Their Relevance for Nuclear Weapon Proliferation (corrected)’, in Science and Global Security, 16:1-25, 2008 / and Mark Hibbs, “Pakistan developed more powerful centrifuges,”in Nuclear Fuel, January 29, 2007, 1, 15-16.

This first floor height of 4.5-5.0 m suggests that it is likely to become a two-storey structure. By 8 April 2016, imagery suggested that similar first storeys had been installed in the south-eastern end of the End Bay, and in the southern ends of Bay One, Bay Two, Bay Three, Bay Four, Bay Five, and in the southern ends of Bays Eight and Nine.

Only when the full extent of the two-storey structure is known might any significance of these second storeys be explained. By June 2016, roofing of the main structure had begun, with roof panels being placed on the first five bays at the northeast end. By 1 August 2016, eight bays of the main structure had been roofed and appeared to be externally complete. However, at this time there was no evidence that the walls had yet been clad.

In addition to being within the KRL’s secure perimeter, additional security features of this new facility are evident. In commercial imagery from 14 June 2016, the continued construction and extension of the northern perimeter wall was visible, as was the installation of two watchtowers. A further two watchtowers, midway along the northern wall and at its end in the southwestern corner, were visible.

Northeast of the site perimeter, at 180 m and 340 m respectively, two air-defence installations have been identifies. Although they had been present for at least three years, historical imagery suggests they were not manned during this period. Significantly, imagery from 2016 shows that the air-defence installations had been refurbished and that they appeared to be manned.

Probable centrifuge plant

It is still premature to conclusively define the function and purpose of the new construction at Kahuta from satellite imagery alone, although it is evident that it is a sensitive site. The selection of its location – next to a military facility and inside the already secure perimeter of the KRL complex – is further enhanced by the construction of the site’s own perimeter wall and guard towers, all at such an early stage of its development. This is in addition to the refurbished anti-aircraft positions.

The location within the KRL is also significant as, although its purpose remains to be confirmed, the building’s light frame structure and the layout of wide bays are wholly consistent with that of a centrifuge plant. The internal design would permit the accommodation of feed facilities, compressors, electrical control units, cascades, and handling facilities for enriched uranium product and waste tails.

As such, the site bears many similarities to the centrifuge facility structures built by the URENCO enrichment consortium at Capenhurst in the UK; Almelo in the Netherlands; and Gronau, Germany. This may be more than coincidence, as AQ Khan worked at URENCO prior to stealing its centrifuge designs and returning to Pakistan to lead the country’s centrifuge programme.

The rate of construction suggests that work on the main structure alone will continue for at least a further 12 months while plumbing, electrics, and ducting for air-conditioning installations are undertaken. A thorough cleaning of the site will also be required before any functional equipment can be installed. As such, it is likely that the site will not be ready for occupation until at least late 2017 or early 2018.

Measuring output

Assuming that the new construction is indeed a centrifuge plant, estimating its output is problematic as, once it becomes operational, the model of centrifuge that will be used within the building is unknown. Available evidence suggests Pakistan has continued to research and develop new centrifuge designs since it obtained European centrifuge technology.

For example, a confidential KRL video from 2000, which was seized by Pakistani investigators of the AQ Khan network, contained footage of a P-2 centrifuge cascade in a large cascade hall at KRL. However, the video also showed centrifuges that were significantly longer than the P-2, suggesting that more advanced models had been developed. These may include the so-called P-3 (possibly based on URENCO’s 4M centrifuge, partial designs of which were stolen by AQ Khan), while references to a more advanced P-4 centrifuge also appear in open literature.

Despite this, the characteristics of more advanced models remain speculative and the only firm public information is on Pakistan’s P-2 design. This has an estimated enrichment capability of approximately five separative work units (SWU) a year, and a cascade of 164 P-2 machines will typically require 250 m2 of floor space. The floor space required for other machine models is currently unknown, although reported rotor diameters (see table) suggest that there may be a similar footprint to the P-2.

Each standard bay could notionally accommodate 656 P-2-sized machines, but an allowance for corridors and access lanes suggests that a maximum of 450 machines per bay would be more realistic. It is likely that the smaller end bays will be used to accommodate feed stations, autoclaves, and product draw-off facilities, and some lateral corridors will be used for compressors and electrical control units.

Hence, as an approximation, if the space of 10-12 bays were to be used for P-2-sized centrifuges, it should be possible to accommodate circa 4,500 to 5,400 machines. This would make it larger than enrichment sites such as Fordow in Iran (which is designed to accommodate 2,976 centrifuges in 16 cascades), but it is still only modest in size.

This may be explained by Pakistan’s large stocks of low enriched uranium (LEU), for which much of the separative work has already been performed. This reduces the need for large numbers of machines to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) in the form of UF6. This final-stage enrichment function is also the reported function of Pakistan’s other enrichment site at Gadwal, in Wah cantonment, in Punjab province. However, a lack of public information means that there are considerable uncertainties about the site’s size and function.

Possible uses

Siting the new building at Kahuta within the Pakistani programme and other enrichment facilities also remains problematic. One possibility is that the new construction is intended to replace existing military enrichment facilities at KRL or Gadwal. However, this cannot be currently verified, as information on Gadwal is lacking within open sources and activity at the established KRL site appears to be ongoing.

Civilian use also remains unlikely. To date, Pakistan’s Chinese-built nuclear power plants use Chinese-supplied fuels, and despite two new enrichment facilities for the country’s domestic nuclear power programme being reported, both are to be located outside Kahuta. In 2007, the Press Trust of India reported that a new enrichment site was to be built in Kundian, in the Mianwali district of Punjab province, close to known fuel fabrication facilities. Another facility is intended for Chak Jhumra in Faisalabad. Both will come under international inspections.

Instead, it is possible that the site represents a new capability and that it is being built to house new and more advanced centrifuges; a bay height of 4.5-5 m would be capable of accommodating the suspected length of Pakistan’s more advanced centrifuges. This remains unconfirmed, as will the use of any enriched material.

If used for military purposes, any output could be used to supplement Pakistan’s stock of nuclear weapons, particularly as the Khushab Nuclear Complex (which produces Pakistan’s plutonium) uses unenriched uranium. Use in a nuclear-powered submarine is also doubtful: although Pakistan is seeking to expand its submarine fleet, its three Agosta 90B and two Agosta 70 boats are all diesel-electric, and forthcoming Chinese-sourced Type 041s will also use non-nuclear propulsion.

Regardless of the ultimate use made by Pakistan of any further enriched uranium output, the construction of a new facility will raise international proliferation concerns


Although it is too early to definitively conclude the function and purpose of the new building from imagery alone, there are many features that make the building identified as a strong candidate for a new centrifuge facility. It is sited within an established centrifuge complex, shows some of the structural features of a possible new uranium enrichment facility, has a high level of security (even within the secure area of KRL), and coincides with Pakistan’s continued covert procurement of items that are relevant to a centrifuge programme.

If confirmed to be a new uranium enrichment facility, it is possible that Pakistan has sought to imbed new centrifuge designs, such as the P-3 or P-4, in the new building in order to further bolster its growing stocks of fissile material. This would coincide with Pakistan’s efforts to increase its stocks of plutonium, with the four production reactors at Khushab now operational.

Although any new centrifuge designs could potentially increase the rate at which Pakistan could enrich uranium, the considerable uncertainties surrounding Pakistan’s nuclear programme make assessing the size of any new capacity, its impact on the national enrichment capacity, or composition of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal problematic.

With ongoing construction suggesting that it will become operational in late 2017 or early 2018, however, the new building will probably remain a site of interest and observation until further information unfolds.


Pakistan has pursued plutonium and uranium routes to its nuclear weapons. Uranium enrichment has been reported at several sites across Pakistan, although open sources suggest that, at present, the two main enrichment facilities are at KRL and Gadwal.

Plutonium comes from the four unsafeguarded reactors at the Khushab Nuclear Complex. The first reactor at Khushab became operational in 1996, and since then the site has expanded with a further three production reactors likely to have come online in 2010, 2013, and 2015. Plutonium extraction takes place at the reprocessing facilities at the Chashma Nuclear Complex and the New Labs in the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH). According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), by January 2015 Pakistan had approximately 3.1 tonnes of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and 0.19 tons of military-grade plutonium. Both materials have been weaponised. Early air-dropped nuclear weapons are likely to have been uranium-based, whereas plutonium-based devices are more likely to be mounted on Pakistan’s ballistic missiles.

Assessing the size of the Pakistani arsenal is complicated, as it is also possible that Pakistan has weapons that use both materials. In their estimate of Pakistani nuclear forces in 2015, nuclear experts Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris estimated that Pakistan had a nuclear weapons stockpile of 110-130 warheads, up from an estimated 90-110 warheads in 2011. The authors noted that future growth would nevertheless depend on two key factors, including “how many nuclear-capable launchers Islamabad plans to deploy, and how much the Indian nuclear arsenal grows”.

1 comment:

Albert Kaplan said...

It is inconceivable to me the Pakistan has been permitted to develop nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Is this not the very same country that gave Osama Bin Ladin a hiding place? Is this not the very same country that sold nuclear weapons production know how to North Korea? Is not Pakistan Muslim?