Safety must be a priority as China bolsters Pakistan nuclear energy push

Syed Fazl-e-Haider considers its Chinese-aided energy development

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 6:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 2:15am

China is strengthening Pakistan's nuclear muscle in a bid to overcome the South Asian nation's energy crisis. After helping to develop the nuclear facility in Chashma, in Punjab province, China is now working with Pakistan on another plant in the southern port city of Karachi.

This is not just a move by Pakistan's strategic ally to help Islamabad overcome its crippling power shortages; it is also a move by an ambitious nuclear power seeking to enhance its nuclear trade abroad.

The Karachi plant will be Pakistan's largest nuclear power project, with a production capacity of 2,200 megawatts. Late last month, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the project, which is estimated to cost US$9.6 billion. The project, which involves setting up two nuclear reactors, is scheduled to be completed in six years.

Certainly, it will be difficult for the cash-strapped country to raise the funds for the project and the government is having to rely largely on foreign loans. Energy security is the top priority of the government, which plans to increase the share of nuclear power in electricity production by installing nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 8,800MW by 2030. The country also plans to construct six more nuclear power plants with the capacity to produce 40,000MW of electricity by 2050 with China's co-operation.

Presently, the country has two nuclear power plants - Chashma 1 and 2 - each with a capacity of 300MW and built with Chinese assistance.

Chashma 3 and 4 are being built with the co-operation of China Zhongyuan Engineering Corporation, which is directly affiliated to the state-run China National Nuclear Corp.

Yet, while the Karachi project will help the country meet its energy needs, it also raises safety concerns, given its location on the Arabian Sea coast, about 40 kilometres west of Karachi.

The 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which triggered a nuclear crisis, raised a global alarm about atomic safety. The construction of nuclear plants along coastlines has long been considered risky.

Therefore, an environmental impact assessment must be carried out before the Karachi facilities are built. In particular, it must be determined whether the complex is located in a seismic zone.

Even with its advanced technology, Japan faced a potential catastrophe after the quake-crippled nuclear power plant exploded, releasing low levels of radiation.

Certainly, for a country that faces chronic power shortages affecting its industrial output, daily life and economic growth, the nuclear power projects are a blessing for Pakistan. Yet, it seems that business interests dominate safety concerns at present.

China sees the development of nuclear sites in Pakistan as a showcase of its ability to export reactors, a trade that Beijing hopes will grow. Chinese nuclear industry executives see abundant opportunities to expand their nuclear power sector abroad.

But critics have objected in particular to the 1970s technology being used by China to build the Chashma reactors, claiming it has fewer safety features than the newer models Beijing is set to use for its domestic nuclear plants.

China currently has 17 nuclear power reactors in operation, with another 28 under construction - some 40 per cent of the world's total currently being built.

China is particularly proud of having completed the latest 1,000MW reactor at the Ling Ao power plant in Guangdong, which became operational in 2011, in 57 months. How will it fare in Pakistan?

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst in Pakistan