- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

A major new Pakistani plutonium nuclear reactor could be used for “military purposes” as well as for civilian power needs but will not lead to a massive increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal, Pakistan’s new ambassador to Washington said yesterday.

Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani dismissed a private Washington-based think tank’s report on the reactor under construction at the Khushab nuclear complex as “grossly exaggerated,” and denied the new plant could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium to boost the country’s production from an estimated two bombs a year to as many as 50.

But in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, he gave the first official acknowledgment that the heavy-water reactor will bring at least some increase in Pakistan’s military nuclear capability at a time of heightened fears of a South Asia arms race with rival India.

“The plutonium may certainly be used for military purposes, but it is simply not the case that it will increase our capability X-fold,” said Mr. Durrani, a former top defense adviser to the Pakistani president and chairman of the country’s military industrial complex for much of the 1990s.

The ambassador declined to give production figures for the new plant, but said it would be far less powerful than the 1,000-megawatt estimate given last month by the Institute for Science and International Security. Pakistan’s current reactor, located near the new one, is a 50-megawatt unit completed in 1998.

“I would love it to be 1,000 megawatts, because we certainly have the power needs,” he joked.

But the Khushab site has sparked international concerns as the United States and India move to ratify a nuclear cooperation deal that critics warn could allow India to greatly accelerate its own military nuclear program.

Mr. Durrani, who presented his credentials to President Bush a month ago, said Pakistan had conveyed its “deep concerns” about the India accord to the Bush administration, while saying it was unlikely the deal could be derailed.

“We know your administration is very keen for this deal, but we also don’t want to see an imbalance with India that we would have to match,” Mr. Durrani said.

He frankly acknowledged that the case of Pakistan nuclear pioneer Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sold sensitive nuclear technology to rogue states such as Iran and North Korea before his smuggling ring was broken up in 2004, was “an absolute, total, unmitigated disaster for my country,” raising doubts in Washington and other capitals about the reliability of Pakistan’s nonproliferation controls.

“It pulled our image down very badly and it will take us time to get out of this mess,” he said.

The Pakistani envoy said he hoped to end what he called the “yo-yo,” up-and-down relationship his country has had with the United States.

He rejected suggestions that the Pakistani army and intelligence services are less than fully committed to the war against al Qaeda and global terrorism, saying the military “is perhaps the most liberal institution in the country today.”

The army, Mr. Durrani noted, has suffered 600 deaths in the politically difficult campaign to flush out Taliban and al Qaeda operatives in the country’s tribal provinces on the border. He said there were signs of rising Islamic fundamentalist activity in the region — a “blowback” from continuing insecurity across the border in Afghanistan — but said U.S. and Pakistani officials are planning special reconstruction zones as part of a campaign to undercut the appeal of extremists.

The ambassador said there was “no sympathy” in Pakistan for Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, but he added it was more likely bin Laden was holed up on the less-populous Afghan side of the border.

“I think if he were in Pakistan, he would be caught by now,” he said.

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