China Builds Nuclear Reactors in Earthquake-Prone Pakistan
China has decided to defy international norms and build new nuclear reactors in Pakistan.
While the U.S. and Europe see stagnant growth for commercial nuclear power, the same is not true in Asia. China is not only building nuclear reactors at home, but it is exporting its technology abroad. Of particular concern is its construction of nuclear reactors in Pakistan. China helped build two reactors at Chashma, which came online in 2000 and 2011 respectively. More recently, it has decided to double the size of the Chashma power plant, with two additional reactors under construction. And it is also constructing a new nuclear power plant near Karachi, using China’s next generation ACP-1000 design.
But China’s plans in Pakistan are facing global criticism.
The problem is that Pakistan is not a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which should disqualify it for any international help in building nuclear power plants. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a coalition of nuclear technology exporting countries who have banded together to create guidelines and norms around the sale of nuclear technology in order to ensure its safe use while guarding against the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities. One of the core tenets of the NSG is to not trade nuclear technology to countries that have not signed up to the NPT. Pakistan is one of the world’s four remaining holdouts to the NPT (the other three are India, Israel, and South Sudan).
That is why China’s decision to build nuclear reactors in Pakistan has received criticism. As a member of the NSG, China is defying the guidelines on nuclear trade. China says that its promise to Pakistan predates its 2004 accession to the suppliers group.
The two reactors under construction near Karachi will provide Pakistan with 2.2 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, a vital lifeline for a country suffering an acute energy crisis. But the project is sited a mere 20 miles from a city with over 20 million people, which is sparking opposition among Karachi residents. Activists sued to stop construction of power plant. It broke ground at the end of 2013, but a judge suspended construction in December 2014 until a new environmental assessment could be obtained. That is expected to be issued within the next month.
The U.S. has voiced some opposition to China’s involvement in Pakistan as well. “China’s expanding civilian nuclear cooperation with Pakistan raises concerns and we urge China to be transparent regarding this cooperation,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement. U.S. intelligence from the 1990’s found that China was likely a “principle supplier” to Pakistan for its undeclared nuclear weapons program, a major factor in American skepticism towards China’s current relationship with Pakistan.
The U.S. has also raised concerns because, unlike Pakistan’s earlier reactors which were grandfathered in as they predated China’s joining the NSG, the new reactors near Karachi amount to a more blatant breach of NSG protocol. China has confirmed its plans for six reactors and says that it will probably build more. However, the U.S. does not have a firm leg to stand on, with its credibility tarnished after having pushed through an exemption for India – another non-signatory of the NPT – to allow American firms to export nuclear technology.
But beyond breach of international protocol, the construction of nuclear reactors in Karachi has raised safety concerns. The threat of terrorism in such an unstable country worries not only U.S. diplomats, but Pakistani civil society as well. The head of a Karachi-based non-profit questioned Pakistan’s ability to safely operate the new reactors in aninterview with The Washington Post, citing prior nuclear disasters in the U.S., Soviet Union, and Japan. “Those are three highly advanced countries,” Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute for Labor Education and Research said. “This is Pakistan. We don’t live on technology and science. In fact, we are quite allergic to that.” China insists the technology is safe, citing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s completed safety review in January.
Still, for a city that is no stranger to cyclones or earthquakes, a natural disaster could spark a nuclear catastrophe. Any sort of emergency situation would be a nightmare because of the power plant’s proximity to the megalopolis of Karachi. With only a few dozen fire trucks on hand, a handful of public hospitals, the capacity of the city to respond to such a situation is uncertain. “You couldn’t even dream of evacuating Karachi,” Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy told the Post. “The minute an alarm was sounded, everything would be choked up. There would be murder and mayhem because people would be trying to flee.”