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Sino-Pakistan civil nuclear cooperation: A growing challenge to the global nuclear order

Sino-Pakistan civil nuclear cooperation: A growing challenge to the global nuclear order

The Pakistani newspaper Dawn declared that at least 1200 people had died in Karachi, capital of the worst affected Pakistani state, Sindh, during the recent week-long heatwave. The effects of the abnormally high temperatures have been exacerbated by local infrastructure that has struggled to cope; in particular, power cuts restricted access to air conditioning and refrigeration.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the construction site of the AP1000 reactor in China, October 2014. (Flickr/IAEA Imagebank.)

Power outages are not new in Pakistan and are ordinarily caused by a shortage of capacity that results in frequent load shedding of power. Occasionally, 'rebel' attacks also cause damage to transmission lines.

But the recent climatic conditions have brought fresh criticism. Both the Sharif Government and electricity companies are perceived to have failed to address a widely recognised problem. K-Electric, which provides electricity to Karachi, was the focus of much of this ire, with protesters blaming it for the death toll. 

So the announcement of new electricity generation capacity was welcome news for most.

On 19 June the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency granted approval for the construction of new nuclear reactors to continue at Paradise Point, west of Karachi. The project will see two reactors built alongside the existing Karachi Nuclear Power Plant, which is a 137MW Canadian deuterium uranium design from the 1970s. The new reactors, named K-2 and K-3, are of Chinese origin and are expected to contribute a much needed 2200 MW of power output.

Although still years away from completion, this news represents progress from the perspective of energy providers. However, the project remains controversial for a number of reasons. [fold]

At the domestic level, legal challenges and public hearings have caused work to be delayed. Civil society groups were concerned about environmental and safety issues, and filed complaints with local courts. The reactors are close to Karachi, a megacity of some 20 million inhabitants, and analysts are worried by the safety implications of prevailing winds and seismic activity in the area. Moreover, should an accident occur, emergency evacuations could prove difficult because of Karachi's size and geography. 

There is also anxiety regarding the technology itself. The K-2 and K-3 are based on the Chinese ACP1000 reactor design (although they are marketed as the export version, the Hualong-1). This indigenous Chinese design passed an International Atomic Energy Agency safety review at the end of 2014, but the technology remains untested. There are concerns that Karachi could be a proving ground for the Hualong-1. 

China is constructing its own ACP1000 in Fuqing, Fujian province, but Pakistan is the first importer of the technology. Beijing will be keen to demonstrate the design's safety and efficiency in order to acquire more foreign orders. Pakistan has been offered generous financial terms by the Chinese suppliers; any risks associated with the maturity of the technology are reportedly being offset by soft loans in the region of US$6.5 billion. The provision of cutting edge technology at reduced cost is appealing for a Pakistani population which suffers frequent blackouts.

However, there are international concerns about the deal.

The transfer of nuclear technology is governed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which stipulates that nuclear exporters are only supposed to provide technology to states that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Pakistan is not an NPT signatory, although this has not prevented China from going ahead with the deal, as Beijing claims the reactors were part of an agreement predating its NSG membership.

But criticism of China's stance prompts comparisons with a controversial 2008 arrangement whereby the US received an exemption from NSG guidelines so that it could conduct nuclear technology trade with India. The political capital Washington invested to get other NSG members – including China – to agree to that deal makes the current situation even more complex.

Clearly, Pakistan desperately needs to deal with frequent power shortages. China is providing a welcome solution in the form of its new Hualong-1 reactor technology. But the deal highlights a problem with nuclear governance structures. A voluntary and non-binding set of NSG guidelines has been undermined by Beijing for reasons of self-interest. As China continues its rise and its political clout grows, traditional rules and norms are likely to be challenged. What this means for the future of nuclear governance remains to be seen.

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