Recently, Pakistan received much-needed fresh air amidst its ongoing energy crisis by signing a groundbreaking $4.8 billion nuclear power plant deal with China. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the China National Nuclear Cooperation (CNNC) and Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) on June 20, 2023, at the central city of Chashma, also considered as the birthplace of Pakistan-China civil nuclear cooperation. As per this agreement, CNNC will build a one-million-kilowatt class with HPR 1000 technology at the Chashma Nuclear power plant, which is already hosting four nuclear power plants of the same cadre. HPR1000 is a third-generation nuclear technology exclusively innovated and developed by China, comprising cutting-edge safety standards practiced internationally. This development is significant in China-Pakistan relations as it reinforces the notion of “unparalleled friendship” between both countries.
While Pakistan seeks to overcome its energy shortages amid a growing economic crisis, Beijing is securing Pakistan as its strategic ally against India under its Balancing strategy in the Asian region.
China-Pakistan cooperation on civilian use of nuclear energy dates back to the late 1970s, soon after the termination of Canadian assistance over civilian nuclear programs. This step by the Canadian government was mainly due to New Delhi’s nuclear explosion in 1974, which violated the Full-Scale safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). India’s reluctance to follow these safeguards was immediately followed by Islamabad, which compelled Canada to halt its civil nuclear cooperation with both countries. Pakistan and China signed the first agreement on sharing civil nuclear technology in September 1986. Under this agreement, China was to share the power reactors alongside nuclear-related goods and services and technical support for uranium enrichment. Soon after signing this agreement, China provided Pakistan with Qinshan-1, developed domestically by China, to meet its energy and power needs during the 1970s. The construction of Chashma Nuclear Power Plant-1 (C-1) started during the 1990s and became operational in 2001 with a yield of around 300MW. The C-1 was enhanced to develop CHASNUPP-2 with an added work of 5MW, and it started functioning in 2011.
In the subsequent phase, the development of C-3 and C-4 was announced in 2008, which faced a backlash from the International community. C-1 and C-2 were signed between China and Pakistan before China became a Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2004. The members of NSG objected to China’s agreement with Pakistan on sharing nuclear technology. China argued that the third and fourth units of Chashma are grandfathered in the same way as its predecessors, with no significant changes. C-3 and C-4 became effective in 2016 and 2017, respectively, with a net capacity of 327MW each. The ongoing China and Pakistan nuclear cooperation demonstrates both states’ commitment to achieving mutual developmental goals while adhering to the IAEA safeguards.
This cooperation depicts a change in the perspective of Pakistan regarding the use of nuclear technology as paramount significance has been attached to the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes rather than engaging itself in a nuclear arms race in the South Asian region.
The agreement on the construction of Hualong one Reactor as Chashma Unit-5 was to be signed in 2017 between CNNC and PAEC but experienced some delays due to administrative and political issues. In June 2023, the agreement to develop a 1200MW nuclear power plant was signed, with its expected completion around 2029. The project was officially inaugurated on 14th July 2023 in Mianwali, in Punjab, Pakistan. Chairman of China Nuclear Cooperation Pang Chunxue remarked that civil nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan has become integral to an “all-weather” strategic partnership. CNNC described this deal as a “milestone” in bilateral relations and said that this project “will further enhance Pakistan’s energy security, promote economic development, and improve the well-being of the local people. It is also important to build a closer China-Pakistan partnership with a shared future in the new era”. Pakistan received a discount of $100 million on this project from the Chinese side, which reflected a sense of sincerity between both partners. C-5 has become the third facility to feature HPR 1000 technology (or pressurized water reactor technology) in Pakistan, becoming the 7th nuclear power plant exported from China to Pakistan.
Pakistan relies heavily on fuel import to meet its energy needs, for which nuclear energy is a viable alternative. It is environment friendly with zero carbon emissions and “economically competitive.” Hualong One reactor has many advantages, like enhanced safety measures with passive cooling mechanisms. The reactor comes with sophisticated control systems alongside upgraded containment structures. All these features increase the resilience of this reactor against any possible accidents. As per the statements disseminated by the officials, this reactor has been designed to integrate cutting-edge safety measures and a “foolproof security system.” These advanced features have been meticulously integrated to ensure the utmost safety and security, offering high confidence in its operations. This project has provided economic cooperation between both countries while focusing on cheap energy alternatives. Pakistan’s energy input relies on non-renewable resources like coal, which also induces climate change.
Shifting from fossil fuels towards nuclear technology is not only a clean alternative but will be cost-effective for the already crumbling economy. Nuclear Power Plants(NNPs) are saving billions of dollars required to produce energy through other sources.
During the fiscal year 2022 alone, Pakistan saved $3.035 billion concerning oil, $2.207 billion on Regasified Liquefied Natural Gas (RLNG), and $1.586 billion on coal. The shift from carbon-based energy resources towards nuclear energy is a savior for the already crumbling economy of Pakistan. By 2030, Pakistan aims to produce 8,800MWe through nuclear resources to meet its energy needs under the government’s Energy Security Plan. The agreement on C-5 has also opened gates for future cooperation between China and Pakistan while ensuring mutual benefits and win-win cooperation.
The Author is an M.phil International Relations(IR) scholar at National Defence University, Islamabad. Her areas of interest include China’s domestic and foreign policy as well as South Asian politics. Currently She is affiliated with strategic vision Institute as Research Assistant.