New Construction at Pakistan’s Khan Research Laboratories Consistent with Known Centrifuge Sites, IHS Markit Says

Thursday, September 15, 2016 9:47 am EDT

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"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."

LONDON (15 September, 2016) – Construction of a new site within the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in Kahuta, Pakistan, bears many similarities to known centrifuge facilities, according to analysis of commercial satellite imagery carried out by IHS Markit (Nasdaq: INFO), a world leader in critical information, analytics and solutions.

Project Alpha, a research group of King’s College London, asked IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review to examine commercially available satellite imagery of a newly built site at the KRL. Imagery taken by Airbus Defence and Space on 28 September, 2015 and then again on 18 April, 2016 show the progress of construction at the possible new uranium enrichment complex near Kahuta.

Where is it?

The area of interest is approximately 1.2 hectares and is located within the secure area of the KRL, in the southwestern part of the complex. Roughly rectangular in shape and approximately 140 metres by 80 metres, it is surrounded by scrubland and trees that provide an additional measure of security on the ground.

Site analysis

In addition to being located near to the KRL, a known centrifuge facility, the new building shares similarities with known centrifuge facility structures built by the URENCO enrichment consortium in Capenhurst (in the UK), Almelo (in the Netherlands) and Gronau (in Germany). “This may be more than coincidence as A.Q. Khan, considered by many to be the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, worked at URENCO before stealing centrifuge designs and returning to Pakistan to work on the country’s centrifuge programme,” said Charlie Cartwright, an imagery analyst for IHS Jane’s.

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

The spacing of footings in the two bays at the northeastern end of the structure and the whole outer southeastern façade of the structure indicates a requirement for greater load-bearing capacity and greater strength, possibly to house or accommodate heavier ancillary equipment.

While 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 seen at the concrete batch plant area. This suggests that the structure’s foundations are likely to be substantial.

According to Cartwright, the building’s light frame structure and layout of wide bays “are wholly consistent with that of a centrifuge plant for uranium enrichment”, with the IHS Jane’s report noting that “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.”

Enhanced security

As well as being within KRL’s secure perimeter, additional security features of this new facility are evident with a northern perimeter wall, visible in satellite imagery, as are several watchtowers. Northeast of the site perimeter, IHS Jane’s has also identified two air defence installations. 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 they have since been refurbished and that they now appear to be manned.

Operations

The site is still under construction, which will continue for at least a further 12 months while plumbing, electrics and ducting for air conditioning installations are undertaken. As such, it is likely that the site will not be ready for occupation until at least late 2017 or early 2018.

“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, proliferation 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.

Project Alpha discovered the new site while preparing a new baseline study of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs.

“It is disappointing to see Pakistan apparently expand its uranium enrichment capacity outside of safeguards whilst not engaging seriously in discussions or negotiations over a fissile material cut-off treaty,” said Ian J Stewart, head of Project Alpha at King’s College London. “It is difficult to see how these actions are consistent with the principles of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a group of responsible nuclear exporters which Pakistan is seeking to join.”

Project Alpha is a research project based at King’s College London that works to understand and counter illicit trade in nuclear and missile technologies. Project Alpha also works to build capacity in governments and the private sector to counter proliferation-related trade. Previous studies by Project Alpha have focused on the covert procurement apparatuses used by the nuclear and missile programs of Iran and North Korea. 

Subscribers to IHS Jane’s and IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review can access more satellite imagery analysis about the Kahuta site here

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Satellite imagery showing the progress of construction at the possible new uranium enrichment site