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Chashma Nuclear Power Plant - II Starts Operation

Dr. Ch. Viyyanna Sastry was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
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  • May 04, 2011

    The Chashma nuclear plant No. 2 in Punjab Province became the first reactor to go online after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, 2011. The 300 MWe pressurised water reactor (PWR) is built with Chinese technical cooperation and is placed under IAEA safeguards. According to the IAEA, the plant’s first grid connection took place on March 14, 2011.

    Chashma unit 2 is the third reactor to produce nuclear energy in Pakistan, following a similar 300 MWe reactor at the same site and a 137 MWe nuclear power plant in Karachi. The former was supplied by China and the latter by Canada. Construction of unit no. 2 at Chashma started in December 2005 and is reported to have been completed before schedule. China loaned Rs. 33.422 billion of the Rs. 51.046 billion granted for the project constituting about 65 per cent of the total. The loan is to be repaid over 20 years.

    According to the Pakistani media, work on two other plants of 300 MWe capacity is already underway at Chashma. They are likely to be completed in 5-7 years time.

    Nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan dates back to the 1970s. Initially limited to military technology, the cooperation shifted to the civil nuclear sphere in the 1990s with China agreeing to build a nuclear plant modelled on its Qinshan plant. The plant started operation in 2000.

    The ongoing civil nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan has been a subject of debate since China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in May 2004. As part of its changed policy towards multilateral export control regimes, China, on joining the NSG, informed the member-states that it was committed to building another nuclear power plant, some research reactors and providing nuclear fuel. This issue was debated extensively in the US at that time as the NSG guidelines did not permit nuclear transfers to Pakistan which was a not a member of the NPT and does not have a full-scope safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Finally, the US and others allowed the supply in the hope that it would be the last supply to Pakistan.

    However, this was not the case. In October 2008, when the newly elected Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, visited China, an agreement for the supply of two more nuclear reactors was reported to have been concluded. The joint statement did not mention the nuclear reactor issue and officials from both China and Pakistan preferred to remain silent. The issue resurfaced again in March 2010 and raised concerns not only in the US and India, but also in many other countries. Since then, different arguments have been put forward by China and Pakistan in support of the supply. They say: that the reactors were part of an agreement signed before China joined the NSG; that they are a part of a grand-fathered clause; that the reactors will be placed under IAEA safeguards and hence do not require the NSG nod; that the cooperation is civilian in nature, etc. The most interesting argument, however, was made by Shen Dingli, Director, Centre for American Studies, Fudan University, who noted:

    China joined the NSG in 2004 and accepted its rules the same year. But before it joined the NSG, China insisted it wouldn’t enforce full-scope safeguards in its nuclear cooperation with those countries that hadn’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This meant that non-NPT countries weren’t required to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency access to all their domestic nuclear programmes, including those pertaining to military, before they could work with China on the civilian side1.

    Pakistan is reeling under a severe energy shortage. In 2005, it set a target of developing 8800 MWe nuclear energy by 2030 to meet energy shortages. Pakistan has also been pressing for a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US, which would enable it to import higher capacity nuclear reactors. At the same time, Pakistani media reports suggest that work has been started to upgrade the production capacity of the existing reactors. Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Pakistan too has ordered a safety review of its nuclear installations.

    There is a growing recognition among Pakistani experts that the reactor models being supplied by China to Pakistan are outdated and are based on 1970s technology. Concerns in this regard have become more pronounced following the recent Fukushima accident. Several anti-nuclear activists have voiced concerns over the utility of nuclear energy and also over the effects of radiation on humans and the environment. There is a growing debate on the safety and security of the nuclear plants world over.

    On the other hand, China, after making one unit of 300 MWe capacity, has taken several stringent steps and has gone on to increase the capacity of its reactors that came online later. As on date, China is eyeing the most advanced and state-of the-art technologies like the AP-1000 and EPR designs, while simultaneously working on indigenisation. Of the 13 reactors that are operating in China, only the six units at Qinshan are of less than 1000 MWe capacity. Pakistan has been seeking higher capacity nuclear plants from China, but till date it has not been able to convince the Chinese in this regard. Reports, however, suggest that China and Pakistan are in talks about further reactor sales as well, including those of 700 MWe and 1000 MWe capacity.

    There are clear indications that China is keen to emerge as a reliable exporter of nuclear power reactors and its supply to Pakistan is a step in this direction. Even before South Korea clinched a $20 billion deal to construct nuclear power plants in UAE, China had set its goals on exporting nuclear reactor technology and related services. It is known that China is in touch with countries like Vietnam, South Africa, and Algeria.

    There is no doubt that Pakistan’s quest for energy is genuine. However, it is likely to face several challenges from external factors and as well as in terms of lack of financial resources. Simultaneously, Pakistan could focus its efforts on other forms of energy to meet its growing needs.

    • 1. Dingli Shen, “America can’t contain us,” The Outlook, November 8, 2010.