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Chinese New Nuclear Power Reactor Supply to Pakistan?

Dr. Ch. Viyyanna Sastry was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
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  • September 23, 2010

    Even before the dust settled on the legality of China’s supply of two pressurized water reactors of 300 MWe capacity to Pakistan, reports are coming out indicating that the Chinese authorities are keen on supplying Pakistan with another bigger capacity nuclear power plant. The Wall Street Journal quoted the Vice President of the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), Qiu Jiangang, as telling a seminar in Beijing on September 20, 2010 that his company was holding negotiations on the supply of a 1000 MWe reactor. Briefing the gathering on the status of the ongoing Chinese civil nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, he reportedly said that the first plant at Chashma was operating nicely, the second would be operational by the end of this year, and agreements have already been signed for the third and fourth plants. But several gaps in information remain such as the site, costs, financial issues, fuel supply, etc.

    The CNNC official’s views may be seen against the backdrop of the recent commissioning of the Lingao II nuclear plant in Guangdong Province. The 1000 MWe reactor is the third reactor of the CPR-1000 design (developed by a Chinese from a French design). This reactor was completed in a record time of 57 months, one month ahead of schedule. The reactor became the 12th to have produced nuclear power, thus increasing the annual Chinese capability to 10 GWe. Chinese nuclear industry executives are aware that the rapidly expanding nuclear sector offers enough opportunities for the country to expand overseas.

    The new development has come as a shock for those who were hoping that it would be difficult for China to supply reactors to Pakistan at a place other than Chashma bypassing NSG regulations.

    On its part, Pakistan’s keenness to import bigger capacity reactors from China dates back to 2006 when the then President Gen (retd.) Pervez Musharraf visited China. There were also reports suggesting that the CNNC would supply 1000 MWe reactors to be built adjacent to the Karachi nuclear power plant. Pakistan had also made a survey of prospective sites and selected at least six sites.

    The present development is significant in several ways. Firstly, it indicates that China is getting ready to enter the export market in big reactors. It may be mentioned here that till date, Beijing had exported, only to Pakistan, two 300 MWe reactors at Chashma – one is operational since 2000 and the other is likely to be operational by next year. The experience of operating reactors in a foreign country must have provided the much needed expertise and skills to Chinese scientists and engineers. Keeping in view the ever increasing concerns over global warming and pollution levels and renewed interest in developing nuclear energy as an alternative option, there are indications that China wants to emerge as a leading exporter in this field. Till date, only the US, France, Russia and South Korea have been exporting reactors of 1000 MWe capacity.

    Secondly, China has made rapid strides in the civil nuclear reactor technology within a short span of 20 years. Starting with the modest 300 MWe reactor at Qinshan, China now generates 10 GWe of nuclear power and aims to achieve a whopping 70 GWe by the turn of this decade.

    Thirdly, China is prepared to engage with Pakistan in a more aggressive way in the latter’s quest for nuclear energy. Pakistan, in 2005, had set plans for an ambitious programme of generating 8800 MWe nuclear energy by 2020. This non-military cooperation is in addition to the ongoing defence cooperation between the two countries.

    Fourthly, China appears not to be perturbed by its obligations under the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which it joined in 2004. As per current NSG guidelines, any nuclear cooperation with a non-NPT country like Pakistan is strictly prohibited. At the Annual Plenary Session of the NSG in June 2010 in Christchurch, no formal discussion took place on the issue. Several NSG member States feel that China would take up the issue at an appropriate time.

    Lastly, Pakistan might have succeeded in persuading China to come up with an alternative to the Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement. Pakistanis view the Indo-US nuclear agreement as discriminatory, and seek a similar treatment for themselves. The US rejection of such a deal and reluctance by countries like France forced Pakistan to turn to China as a face-saving gesture.

    Contrary to the grandfather-clause, which China used in 2004 to press its claim to supply the second unit at Chashma, China appears to have defined a new route to forge its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. It has been mentioned by Chinese officials that China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation dates back to the 1990s and is within its international obligations under NPT and NSG. Pakistani officials expectedly echo similar views. The Chinese also supplement their argument by stating that the reactors would be placed under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) facility-oriented safeguards, and hence there should not be any concern.

    The US had failed to come out with a strong response the last time when the twin reactors issue was made public. It said that it had sought details from China on the issue and that it opposed the supply of any new reactors to Pakistan and that the deal should pass through NSG consensus. A lot depends on how the US and other NSG members would react to the new report. How long China will oppose the global view to forge a consensus decision at the NSG before going ahead with its plans is difficult to answer at this time. The NSG will be in trouble if China goes ahead with its plan to sell nuclear reactors to a non-NPT country.