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- Monday, January 06, 2014 - From Print Edition

Last November, Nawaz Sharif performed the ground-breaking ceremony of Pakistan’s largest nuclear power project, Kanupp-II and Kanupp-III. China will provide the two reactors, as well as a concessional loan of $6.5 billion for the construction of the $9.59 billion plant. When completed in November 2019, it will add a hefty 2,200MW to Pakistan’s power-generating capacity and make a big contribution in alleviating the problem of power shortage that is hampering the country’s economic development.

But the significance of this nuclear project becomes much larger when we consider that it is being initiated despite a US-led international nuclear embargo on Pakistan, behind which India is now the main driving force. As the foreign ministry’s spokesperson indicated in her press briefing on December 26, some countries are engaged in an international campaign against cooperation between Pakistan and China in the field of nuclear energy. The aim of this campaign is to deny nuclear power, material and technology to Pakistan. This effort, as she hinted, is being led by the US and India.

Although both Pakistan and India are non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), restrictions on the supply of nuclear reactors and other nuclear technology and material to India were lifted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2005 at Washington’s behest, while those on Pakistan were retained.

Washington has sought to justify this duplicitous policy as a response to the proliferation activities of the AQ Khan network, but the truth is that it was the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s strategic engineering plan to “make India a global power” in order to contain the rising power and influence of China. This was accompanied by the so-called de-hyphenation of Pakistan and India. In the nuclear sphere, this decoupling was aimed at legitimising India’s nuclear programme while delegitimising that of Pakistan.

If the US has failed in this crude effort, it is to a large extent because China has refused to join in the nuclear embargo against Pakistan and has been willing to supply the nuclear plants as well as soft loans for Pakistan’s nuclear power programme. Beijing has done so despite Washington’s urgings and Delhi’s lobbying.

China has maintained that its cooperation with Pakistan in civil nuclear technology is “grandfathered” by bilateral agreements which the two countries had entered into before China joined the NSG in 2004. This position has not been accepted by the US. Washington claims that while the ‘grandfather clause’ permits the supply of reactors which had already been agreed upon – that is Chashma-1 and 2 – it does not allow the supply of any additional reactors, including Chashma-3 and 4, without the consent of the NSG. China has not accepted the US contention and has refrained from seeking the permission of the NSG.

Publicly, however, China does not refer specifically to the grandfather clause. The latest official statement in this connection was made by a spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry on December 23. She said simply that cooperation between the two countries in civil nuclear energy “is totally for peaceful purposes, meets their respective international obligations and is subject to IAEA safeguards”.

She also implicitly rejected any proliferation concerns in this connection by emphasising that Chinese assistance to other developing countries in developing nuclear energy is given under the precondition of nuclear non-proliferation. In non-diplomatic language, this statement amounts to flipping the bird at those countries that are campaigning for an end to Pakistan-China cooperation in nuclear energy.

This statement, which was in reply to a question about the supply of a new nuclear power plant near Karachi, has an added significance because it amounts to saying that in the Chinese interpretation, the grandfather clause allows it to supply power reactors not only at Chashma but for any other plant elsewhere in the county.

In a conversation with the Reuters news agency, PAEC Chairman Ansar Parvez also said that the “building of two new reactors at Karachi should convince everyone that international embargoes and restrictions and Indian lobbying won’t stop us.” In a meeting with the press last Thursday, the PAEC Chairman indicated that after Karachi, the government has now initiated the process for building nuclear plants at two other sites: Muzaffargarh and Ahmadpur Sharqi.

China’s commitment to assist in the Karachi nuclear plant also has a strategic dimension. Like the Pakistan-China agreement on building an economic corridor from Kashgar to Gwadar, the expanding cooperation between the two counties in the field of nuclear energy, in disregard of an orchestrated Indo-US game plan, is a sign of the growing strength of the Pakistan-China strategic partnership, which India in particular will find disquieting.

But some Pakistani experts and others have also come out in opposition to Kanupp-II and III. They have raised issues of safety, design and cost. Last month Pervez Hoodbhoy, and two other physicists co-authored an article in a leading Pakistani daily questioning the design, safety, location and cost of the Karachi nuclear project. These questions were raised not in an objective spirit of inquiry, as one would expect from a group of scientists, but in a polemical fashion in order to support their pre-determined conclusion that the project would not be good for Karachi or for Pakistan.

This article has been followed by others in the same vein. One of them also raises the question of security by pointing to the threat of sabotage, theft or a terrorist attack that could release radioactivity.

While raising questions about the design of the ACP1000 reactor that China will be supplying for the Karachi plant, Hoodbhoy fails to mention that it is a third-generation version of pressurised water reactors based on the AP1000 reactor designed by Westinghouse, and that it is equipped with extra safety features to cope with Fukushima-like accidents. He also does not tell his readers that construction at Karachi is to begin after work starts for a reactor of the same model at a Chinese domestic site, Fuqing, in the Fujian province.

Safety concerns must always be taken seriously. But the warning that the “20 million people of Karachi are being used as subjects in a giant nuclear safety experiment” is nothing but scaremongering. It is also unsubstantiated and irresponsible.

As regards costs, nuclear power compares favourably with all other sources except hydro-electric power. The PAEC chairman told the press last week that the average price of power generated by Chashma-3 and 4 would be around Rs9.59 per unit, much less than the price of electricity generated by thermal plants running on gas or oil. Nuclear power is also cleaner than fossil fuels in its impact on the environment.

While work has started in Pakistan on two Chinese-made ACP1000 reactors, India is still negotiating the purchase of two similar AP1000 reactors from Westinghouse. One Indian newspaper has lamented that while these negotiations are proceeding, “China will be able to sidestep global nuclear commerce rules when it sells its third generation nuclear reactors to Pakistan, making its sale a win-win deal for both countries”.

These ‘global commerce rules’ are the US-dictated NSG guidelines that allow the supply of nuclear technology to India but not to Pakistan. That Pakistan has been able to beat these ‘rules; with China’s cooperation and support is no mean feat.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service. Email: [email protected]