Pakistan, estimated to have the world's fastest-growing nuclear stockpile, could be building a new uranium enrichment complex according to commercial satellite imagery analysed by Western defence experts.
The construction of the new site, based in the town of Kahuta some thirty kilometres east of the capital Islamabad, provides fresh evidence of how Pakistan is seeking to boost its atomic arsenal – a goal which is inconsistent with the principles of the Nuclear Suppliers Group the country is seeking to join, the analysis says.
The analysis was conducted by IHS Jane's Intelligence review using satellite images taken by Airbus Defence and Space on September 28, 2015, and then again on April 18, 2016.
Pakistan, which conducted its first nuclear tests in 1998 is believed to have around 120 nuclear weapons, more than India, Israel and North Korea.
A 2015 report written by scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center said Pakistan could increase its stockpile by 20 warheads a year and have the world's third largest in a decade.
"The area of interest is approximately 1.2 hectares and is located within the secure area of the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), in the southwestern part of the complex," said the statement.
“Although it is currently too early to definitively conclude the function and purpose of the new building from imagery alone, it is evident that it is a sensitive site,” said Karl Dewey, analyst at IHS Jane’s.
"It is sited within an established centrifuge facility, has strong security and shows some of the structural features of a possible new uranium enrichment facility. This makes it a strong candidate for a new centrifuge facility," Dewey added.
The structure of the site also bears strong resemblance to facilities built by nuclear fuel company URENCO, which also operates several nuclear plants in Europe, it said.
Charlie Cartwright, an imagery analyst for IHS Jane's, says that the resemblance may be more than a coincidence as AQ Khan, considered by many to be the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, worked at URENCO before bringing centrifuge designs for Pakistan.
Pakistan is currently also seeking to join the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, which seeks to prevent nuclear proliferation by controlling the export of materials, equipment and technology that can be used to manufacture atomic weapons.
Pakistani physicist A H Nayyar told Agence France Presse that if the site was indeed a centrifuge, "then primarily because they are being built inside KRL I would conclude they are for weapons," adding that the country's nuclear power plants were supplied by imported uranium from China.
He, however, cautioned it was not possible to be definitive about the site's purpose based on imagery alone.