An uncertain path: Pakistan’s push for nuclear power

15 October 2015 (Last Updated June 9th, 2020 14:55)

Pakistan is eager to expand its use of nuclear power with a fleet of new plants by 2050, backed by support from China. However, this has caused jitters among some, who fear the country could be looking to increase its nuclear arsenal. Gary Peters reports.

An uncertain path: Pakistan’s push for nuclear power

According to a World Nuclear Association country profile, updated in April, Pakistan currently has 725MWe of installed nuclear power capacity. However, if the country's leaders manage to realise their goals, this will increase substantially in the future.

Looking back, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Committee was created in 1955 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, but it wasn't until 1966 that construction of the first nuclear power plant began in Karachi.

Although there was interest to build more, it took another 20 years for work on a second plant, Chasma 1 in Punjab province, to be put into action. According to an International Atomic Energy Agency report, this was "due to an unfavourable international environment coupled with lack of indigenous technological and industrial capabilities for design and construction".

With the assistance of the China National Nuclear Corporation, construction finally began in 1993, and the plant was connected to the grid in 2000. This was followed by Chasma 2, a third and improved plant, in 2011. The fourth and fifth, Chashma 3 and 4, which are largely financed by China, are expected to be online by 2016.

In July 2013, The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) also approved 3.5GWe of new power projects, of which 2200MWe is nuclear.

On top of the Chasma sites, China has also agreed to construct two reactors near Karachi, using the ACP-1000 reactor design, which costs approximately $5bn to build and was developed from previous designs in China.

China-Pakistan: an evolving partnership

The heavy reliance on Chinese support for these projects has drawn criticism from multiple sources.

"China's expanding civilian nuclear cooperation with Pakistan raises concerns and we urge China to be transparent regarding this cooperation," read a US Embassy statement.

But Abdul Hameed Nayyar, a Pakistani physicist, explains the relationship as simply a "marriage of convenience".

"The Pakistan-China nuclear trade can be explained by a simple fact that no other country in the world is ready to sell a nuclear power reactor to Pakistan, and no other country has shown any interest in buying nuclear power reactors made in China so far," he is quoted as saying in an article by Pakistan's Dawn.com.



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"[China] has set up several nuclear industrial corporations, which have invested so heavily in the acquisition of the technical skill that they are now keen to export nuclear power technology abroad."

This growing partnership - China unveiled a $46bn investment plan in Pakistan in April - has seen bilateral trade reach $12bn last year, up from $2bn ten years earlier. Such a move helps position China as a key partner and lays the groundwork for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which incorporates roads, transport and pipeline projects.

Victor Gao, director of the China National Association of International Studies, has said that this corridor has two core benefits: a deterrence to terrorism and extremism, and greater productivity.

There's no doubt, however, that is also demonstrates a growing desire for Chinese influence in the region. Speaking anonymously to CBS News, an Islamabad-based Asian ambassador said: "China is a very cash-rich country, while the US has its financial limitations.

"Now it appears that China wants to use its money to expand its influence in other countries."

Nuclear security concerns

Away from the politics of the agreement are security worries associated with additional nuclear power. Pakistan is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), adopted in 1968, which attempts to prevent the supply of nuclear weapons and related technology.

In an article published in June, Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said: "It is a discriminatory treaty. Pakistan has the right to defend itself, so Pakistan will not sign the NPT. Why should we?"

Then there is also the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which has guidelines for the sale of nuclear technology. These include the non-proliferation principle, which determines that a transfer of nuclear technology is only permitted if it does not lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

"Pakistan has the right to defend itself, so Pakistan will not sign the NPT. Why should we?."

China participates in the NSG, but Pakistan does not. China, however, claims that its agreements with Pakistan predate its membership of the NSG, which occurred in 2004.

In a leaked report to the Washington Post in 2013, it was revealed that US officials had concerns about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. According to the document, the US intelligence community had increased its surveillance, claiming "knowledge of the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and associated material encompassed one of the most critical set of ... intelligence gaps."

The possibility of terrorists attacking the new reactors in Karachi has also been raised. In 2011 a naval base in Karachi was stormed by attackers, while in September 2014 a navy frigate docked in Karachi's port was the subject of an attack by al-Qaeda militants.

Alongside this, there is also the possibility of natural disasters and their impact on the city's population.

A Chernobyl-like disaster

The location of the reactors, which are expected to provide 1,100MW of energy, has angered some, as they will be less than 20 miles from downtown Karachi.

"You are talking about a city one-third the population of the UK," Abdul Sattar Pirzada, a Karachi lawyer who wants to delay the project, told the Washington Post.

"If there would be an accident, this would cripple Karachi, and if you cripple Karachi, you cripple Pakistan."

Nayyar, meanwhile, told Dawn that his biggest concern is a "Fukushima or Chernobyl-like accident", although China has never had a major nuclear accident along these lines.

"The reactors are situated too close to the metropolis of Karachi," Nayyar told the website.

"The Fukushima accident effects were observed up to a distance of 30km from the reactor site. From the proposed Karachi reactor site, the area up to 30km includes a densely populated area.



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"Imagine evacuating the entire population of Karachi. Is it really possible? If we fail to evacuate 18 million people imagine the number of people that would get radiation sickness."

Such a scenario has led to opposition, not least a lawsuit against the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority from Pirzada that did manage to halt some aspects of construction.

Pakistan's Water, Power and Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has commented that, despite the risk, preparing for any eventuality is key, and he urged the international community not to underestimate the country.

However, this rather weak assertion of competence leaves many questions unanswered, one of which is whether it would be better for Pakistan to seek Western assistance. Looking at the West, the US is trying to come to an agreement with India for US companies to invest in nuclear power in the country - despite the fact that India has, like Pakistan, refused to sign the NPT.

Another option is for Pakistan to look to other forms of energy. According to Nayyar, in 2014 China installed 20GW worth of wind energy, so perhaps another accord, this time focusing on wind or solar energy, could emerge.

For the moment, however, it is nuclear power expansion that is leading the way.