How Pakistan and China Are Strengthening Nuclear Ties

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Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as they prepare to inspect Chinese honor guards during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 5, 2013

Pakistan held a ceremonial groundbreaking last week on a nuclear complex in Karachi that it intends to build with assistance from China. The government says the complex, which will contain two Chinese-built nuclear reactors, will cost $9.6 billion and will help assuage the power crisis that has crippled daily life and the national economy in recent years.

The reactors are expected to start supplying 2,200 megawatts to the grid by 2019. The complex is not the first energy investment or nuclear project in Pakistan that China has been involved with, but it will be by far the largest.

The nuclear power relationship between Pakistan and China is widely seen as a continuing effort to respond to the India-U.S. civilian nuclear deal, which, among other things, ended a decades-long moratorium on U.S. companies selling nuclear technology to India, despite India not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The move rankled Pakistan, which has also not signed the treaty and worries about a nuclear buildup by a country it considers its archenemy. China, too, criticized the deal for, it asserted, undermining nonproliferation. That the U.S. was building ties with India to counterbalance China’s growing power in Asia was probably not lost on Beijing either.

(MORE: What China’s Growing Nuclear Power Means for the World)

Regional rivalries aside, Pakistan does need the power. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who visited the site of the complex on Nov. 26, came to office in general elections in May in part on a campaign promise to fix Pakistan’s severe power shortages. Cuts of eight and nine hours are routine; in some parts of the country there are more hours in the day without electricity than with it. Power outages have sparked violent protests around the nation, and factories have had to shutter or drastically reduce production without a steady supply.

Sharif has said that Pakistan plans to build six more nuclear energy plants in coming decades, but it is unclear whether more will be built in partnership with China. It’s equally unclear how Pakistan plans to finance this new project or the future expansion. In September, the International Monetary Fund lent Pakistan $6.7 billion over a three-year period, based partly on a promise from Sharif that he would reform the struggling energy sector.

Islamabad’s turn toward more nuclear power also raises questions over the safety of the nation’s nuclear reactors. Some observers are uncomfortable with the increasing instability in Pakistan and say that civilian reactors and the material used to fuel them could become targets of terrorist groups operating in the country.

Not all the plant’s neighbors are thrilled with the idea, either. The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum was quick to raise concerns over the location of the plant, which is in a cyclone- and tsunami-prone area, as well as the impact of the plant’s wastewater on marine life in the area, according to the Express Tribune. The group says that the community around the site was not consulted about the construction of two reactors near their homes.

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