Islamabad: Pakistan's disgraced nuclear scientist AQ Khan has disclosed that the country's atomic programme has been ‘running without any break’ for the past 10 years and the process of uranium enrichment is underway.

"Although I have not been associated with the programme for the past 10 years, I know that it has been running without any break and the process of uranium enrichment is in progress," Khan said in an interview to a daily.

Though the concerned departments are not giving "final shape to new nuclear weapons", the materials are being prepared and could be assembled at any time if required, he said.

Asked if the nuclear programme was running satisfactorily, Khan said it was ‘running well’.

Reports have suggested that Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme is expanding at a rapid pace and the country is expected to have a fourth operational reactor by 2013 to ramp up production of plutonium.

US congressional official working on nuclear issues have said that intelligence estimates suggest Pakistan has already developed enough fissile material to produce over 100 warheads and manufacture between eight and 20 weapons a year.

Asked about safety of Pakistan's nuclear assets, Khan said the Taliban or any external force could not seize them because of a "highly secured system which has been improved gradually".

The nuclear assets were safe from day one and no country should be worried about them, he claimed. ‘We know how to protect our strength,’ Khan said in reply to a question about statements from the US and India that terrorists could seize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

The weapons were not stored at one place and very few people knew about their location, he said.

"You can count these people on fingers who exactly know about the location of nuclear arsenals," he said.

Most nuclear weapons made by the Khan Research Laboratories and other departments had been handed over to military authorities and the practice still continued.

"These weapons are lying in tunnels and safe houses where no one can access them, except very few relevant people," Khan said.

He said former premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had made the security system for the country's nuclear programme and nuclear assets foolproof and, with the passage of time, former army chiefs Zia-ul-Haq, Mirza Aslam Beg and Abdul Waheed Kakar further beefed up the security.

"Finally, the Strategic Plans Division upgraded the system, making it inaccessible to any one inside and outside the country," he said.

Reviled by the international community as the head of a clandestine nuclear proliferation ring, Khan is considered a national hero in Pakistan for his role in the country's nuclear weapons programme.

Though he was put under house arrest in early 2004 for his role in nuclear proliferation, the current government has eased restrictions on Khan under a secret agreement.

(Agencies)