China has promised to finance the construction of two nuclear power reactors in Pakistan. Critics say that Beijing's atomic deal with Islamabad is not a good idea considering Pakistan's history of proliferation.
Pakistani officials confirmed Tuesday, December 24, that the China National Nuclear Cooperation (CNNC) had promised to grant their country a loan of 6.5 billion dollars to fund a major atomic power project in the country's southern port city of Karachi. Pakistan's Energy Ministry officials told the news agency Reuters that China had also waived a 250,000-dollar insurance premium on the loan.
The nuclear-armed South Asian country is facing a severe energy crisis. Blackouts last for more than half a day in many of cities, including the financial and industrial hub, Karachi. The shortage of electricity and gas has badly affected the country's economy, which needs a half-yearly bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Pakistan hopes to generate more than 40,000 megawatts of electricity through nuclear plants by 2050. The two Chinese-funded nuclear plants - with a capacity of 1,100 megawatts each - is expected to be completed by 2019, and each of them will be bigger than the combined power of all nuclear plants operating in the country.
In July, only two months after becoming prime minister for the third term, Nawaz Sharif visited China - the country's closest ally in the region - to court Chinese investment in his country's ailing transport and electricity-generating sectors. Sharif also attended a Sino-Pakistani Energy Forum in Shanghai, and met with the leaders of the China Power Investment Corporation as well as the Chinese president and the premier. However, it was only last month when Sharif broke ground on the 9.59-billion-dollar nuclear project.
"As things stand, the performance and capacity of nuclear power plants in Pakistan is far better compared to non-nuclear power plants," Ansar Parvez, chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, which runs the civilian nuclear program, told the media. "China has complete confidence in Pakistan's capacity to run a nuclear power plant with all checks in place," he added.
Are all checks in place?
The United States signed a civilian nuclear deal with India in 2008, irking both Beijing and Islamabad. Pakistan demanded a similar deal with the US, but Islamabad's biggest military financer refused it due to the Muslim-majority country's nuclear-proliferation history.
In 2004, the "father" of the country's nuclear bomb, Dr. A.Q. Khan, confessed to selling nuclear technology to North Korea and Iran. Khan was removed from his post as head of the country's nuclear program by former military dictator and President Pervez Musharraf in 2001. Despite that, Pakistan claims both its military and civilian nuclear programs are under strict control and are safe.
Neither Pakistan nor India have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which discourages major atomic powers from entering a civilian nuclear partnership with them. The US nevertheless struck a civilian nuclear deal with India ignoring the (NPT).
"There should be no double standards in terms of civilian nuclear deals," Parvez said. "Pakistan has energy needs and the building of two new reactors should convince everyone that international embargos and restrictions and Indian lobbying won't stop us."
Despite Pakistan's repeated assurances, India and the US fear that the increased civilian nuclear cooperation between Islamabad and Beijing would eventually bolster Islamabad's military program; experts fear Pakistan might try to build up its stock of nuclear warheads.
China downplays these concerns and says its nuclear relations with Pakistan are peaceful and fall under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
Concerns are not totally baseless
"Nuclear programs are never safe. On the one hand there is perhaps too much hype about the Pakistani nuclear program in Western media, on the other there is genuine concern," London-based Pakistani journalist and researcher Farooq Sulehria told DW. "The Talibanization of the Pakistan military is something we can't overlook. What if there is an internal Taliban takeover of the nuclear assets?" Sulehria speculated.
Sulehria's concerns are probably justified. The Taliban militants have proven time and again that they are capable of attacking not only civilians but also military bases. In August 2012, militants armed with guns and rocket launchers attacked an air base in the town of Kamra in the Punjab province. The large base is home to several squadrons of fighter and surveillance planes, which air force officials said had not been damaged in the attack. The Taliban have great influence in Pakistan's restive northwestern Swat Valley and according to defense experts, several nuclear installations are located not too far from the area. Media reports have also claimed a growing presence of al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Karachi.
But political and defense analyst Zahid Hussain believes the West is "unnecessarily worried."
"Pakistan conducted its nuclear tests more fifteen years ago. Nothing has happened since then. Pakistan has made sure the nuclear weapons remain safe," Hussain told DW.
The other aspect of the controversy regarding the construction of nuclear energy plants is their safety. A number of prominent physicists have raised doubts about the safety, design and cost of the new plants in Karachi.
"There is no official information about preparedness for a nuclear accident in Karachi that is available publicly," Zia Mian, a Pakistani-American physicist at Princeton University, told Reuters. "The only real obstacle that may exist to the new reactors being built is if the citizens of Karachi decide they do not want to live with the risks these reactors create."
Zain-ul-Abideen, a social activist and a Karachi resident, told DW that the new nuclear plants had more risks than benefits and that the citizens should oppose their construction. "Pakistan definitely needs energy but it should look for alternate ways to generate it. Nuclear plants are too risky and quite a few countries have already switched to other sources following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima."
Geologists say that Karachi lies on a fault line. Rights activists have already voiced concerns about the safety of the ageing Karachi Nuclear Power Plant and the unpreparedness on the part of the authorities to cope with an unlikely nuclear catastrophe. They say that the possibility of an atomic disaster in a city with a population of 18 million people cannot be ruled out, and that the government must take immediate steps to ensure the safety of the nuclear reactors and its people.