The north compound of the Dera Ghazi Khan nuclear facility in Pakistan’s Punjab province has shown a rapid expansion of capability, increased defences and possible new construction, all within the space of just nine months. This facility falls outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards and is believed to be a military installation supplying to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. Specifically, the north compound is believed to be a uranium dioxide conversion and uranium hexafluoride (UF6) production facility. It receives naturally occurring uranium from nearby Baghalchur mines and converts them into uranium dioxide, and then into fuel rods for reactors, which can produce weaponisable isotopes.
Pakistan keeps insisting that the Dera Ghazi Khan (DGK) nuclear facility is not operational, as pointed out by the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) last year and the Institute for Science in International Security in 2009. But the evidence is to the contrary. This facility is in a high-terror zone and local politicians say it has been attacked by “freedom fighters” in the past. The 2018 CNS report had indicated an expansion of the southern compound, and we are now witnessing a significant increase in both output and some added defences and new construction of the northern compound.
Unexplainable DGK expansion
What is important here is that no increased activity has been noted at Baghalchur, one of the four uranium mines Pakistan operates. This means that the supply of uranium from these mines remained constant and do not justify an expansion of the DGK facility. However, in October 2019, new activity and expansion at the Barugh mountains of Balochistan, some 650 km from Dera Ghazi Khan, was detected.
Barugh was believed to be a missile and weapons storage facility. However, the pattern of activity and expansion seemed to indicate that either it is a dual-use (weapons storage and ore mining) facility, or just an ore extraction facility. It must be pointed out that given the structural issues caused by mining, it is highly unlikely that the tunnels would be used both for extraction of raw material and storage of the end product.
Moreover, Pakistan does not use open-pit or traditional extraction mining, which is easy to detect. Rather it uses in-situ leach (ISL), which is a process similar to fracking, with all the attendant seismic risks. What it involves is boring holes or using explosives to create an entrance into the deposit. Then, a highly corrosive chemical mix is injected, which starts dissolving the deposit. The resulting fluid is then pumped to the surface. The depths at which the reserves exist are not known, but the drilling and creation of large voids underground that affect the structural integrity of the whole site are obvious side effects.
Where this uranium ore from the new sources in Barugh is now headed to seems obvious, given the lack of expansion of other suspected nuclear raw material mines.
Construction at DGK nuclear facility
Four new tail ponds on the left started construction at some point in January 2019 and by October, they were fully operational. These are not alternatives to the five tail ponds seen on the right of the above image. Those ponds were also filled in October as were the four new ponds. A purely non-expert calculation would seem to indicate a full 70-90 per cent increase in uranium processing activity, going by the extent of fluid in all the nine ponds combined.
Moreover, new construction also seems to be emerging. In June 2019, there were clear signs of heavy earthmoving equipment clearing and levelling the marked site in the images below. Within four months, foundations of a new structure had emerged and a significant dump of construction material was also seen.
Additionally, new weapons sites also emerged on the eastern periphery of the facility, in direct line of sight of the new construction coming up in the western side described above. While it is difficult to tell the exact nature of the weapons installed, these are not guard towers and the nature of their construction indicate that they could be air defence related, or act as an area denial system.
For example, this image clearly shows the multi-layered fencing closer to the tail ponds – on the northwestern side of the facility – with a dedicated watch tower marked.
While one cannot positively link the two, there is a significant correlation between the massive output expansion, new construction and defences at DGK, and the expansion seen at the Barugh mines. As such, none of these facilities serves civilian purposes and an ongoing expansion of the already large Pakistani nuclear arsenal is a logical conclusion.
Images courtesy: twitter.com/detresfa_
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.