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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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China Builds Nuclear Reactors in Earthquake-Prone Pakistan

China Builds Nuclear Reactors in Earthquake-Prone Pakistan

China has decided to defy international norms and build new nuclear reactors in Pakistan.

While the U.S. and Europe see stagnant growth for commercial nuclear power, the same is not true in Asia. China is not only building nuclear reactors at home, but it is exporting its technology abroad. Of particular concern is its construction of nuclear reactors in Pakistan. China helped build two reactors at Chashma, which came online in 2000 and 2011 respectively. More recently, it has decided to double the size of the Chashma power plant, with two additional reactors under construction. And it is also constructing a new nuclear power plant near Karachi, using China’s next generation ACP-1000 design.

But China’s plans in Pakistan are facing global criticism.

The problem is that Pakistan is not a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which should disqualify it for any international help in building nuclear power plants. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a coalition of nuclear technology exporting countries who have banded together to create guidelines and norms around the sale of nuclear technology in order to ensure its safe use while guarding against the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities. One of the core tenets of the NSG is to not trade nuclear technology to countries that have not signed up to the NPT. Pakistan is one of the world’s four remaining holdouts to the NPT (the other three are India, Israel, and South Sudan). Related: France’s Areva Lost $5.6 Billion In 2014 – Is This The End?

That is why China’s decision to build nuclear reactors in Pakistan has received criticism. As a member of the NSG, China is defying the guidelines on nuclear trade. China says that its promise to Pakistan predates its 2004 accession to the suppliers group.

The two reactors under construction near Karachi will provide Pakistan with 2.2 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, a vital lifeline for a country suffering an acute energy crisis. But the project is sited a mere 20 miles from a city with over 20 million people, which is sparking opposition among Karachi residents. Activists sued to stop construction of power plant. It broke ground at the end of 2013, but a judge suspended construction in December 2014 until a new environmental assessment could be obtained. That is expected to be issued within the next month.

The U.S. has voiced some opposition to China’s involvement in Pakistan as well. “China’s expanding civilian nuclear cooperation with Pakistan raises concerns and we urge China to be transparent regarding this cooperation,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement. U.S. intelligence from the 1990’s found that China was likely a “principle supplier” to Pakistan for its undeclared nuclear weapons program, a major factor in American skepticism towards China’s current relationship with Pakistan. Related: A New Season Brings Big Changes In Energy

The U.S. has also raised concerns because, unlike Pakistan’s earlier reactors which were grandfathered in as they predated China’s joining the NSG, the new reactors near Karachi amount to a more blatant breach of NSG protocol. China has confirmed its plans for six reactors and says that it will probably build more. However, the U.S. does not have a firm leg to stand on, with its credibility tarnished after having pushed through an exemption for India – another non-signatory of the NPT – to allow American firms to export nuclear technology.

But beyond breach of international protocol, the construction of nuclear reactors in Karachi has raised safety concerns. The threat of terrorism in such an unstable country worries not only U.S. diplomats, but Pakistani civil society as well. The head of a Karachi-based non-profit questioned Pakistan’s ability to safely operate the new reactors in an interview with The Washington Post, citing prior nuclear disasters in the U.S., Soviet Union, and Japan. “Those are three highly advanced countries,” Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute for Labor Education and Research said. “This is Pakistan. We don’t live on technology and science. In fact, we are quite allergic to that.” China insists the technology is safe, citing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s completed safety review in January.

Still, for a city that is no stranger to cyclones or earthquakes, a natural disaster could spark a nuclear catastrophe. Any sort of emergency situation would be a nightmare because of the power plant’s proximity to the megalopolis of Karachi. With only a few dozen fire trucks on hand, a handful of public hospitals, the capacity of the city to respond to such a situation is uncertain. “You couldn’t even dream of evacuating Karachi,” Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy told the Post. “The minute an alarm was sounded, everything would be choked up. There would be murder and mayhem because people would be trying to flee.”


By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Matt Robinson on March 11 2015 said:
    A good article, Nick. Thank you.

    However, I take you to task over a couple of false implications in the article. The first one is the term 'Earthquake-Prone' in the headline. You imply here that earthquakes are a safety issue for modern reactors despite there being no evidence of any significant safety failure due to earthquakes.

    None of the 'big three' (Chernobyl, TMI, or Fukushima) were caused by earthquakes. Fukushima's failure was caused by inundation by a tsunami. But for poorly located diesel generators there would have been no radiation release.

    In fact there are 54 reactors in arguably the most earthquake place on the planet (Japan) that have never had any kind of accident caused by tremors. Civilian nuclear power reactors are designed specifically to withstand that kind of event.

    The second is your use of the term 'nuclear catastrophe'. What do you really think a catastrophe is? How do you measure it? If it's the number of deaths and injuries, then nuclear accidents don't even rate the term. The confirmed death count in Chernobyl was 58. The maximum possible has been guessed at 4000 over a period of 40 years, but this is considered to be very unlikely. The other two accidents killed and injured no one. Much of the Chernobyl exclusion zone is now a wildlife refuge, and the people who wouldn't evacuate are still alive and well today.

    We are yet to have a 'nuclear catastrophe' at a civilian nuclear power plant, and we never will.

    The impact of nuclear accidents has little to do with the accident itself and much more to do with the education of the people who live near them. An orderly evacuation for a short period of time is hardly a catastrophe, but unnecessary widespread panic is.

    If you want an example of a catastrophe, global warming comes to mind, or widespread famine in Africa, or ocean acidification wiping out sea life. Nuclear accidents are not on that list.

    Using the terms 'earthquake-prone' and 'nuclear catastrophe' may make for exciting reading and perhaps increase your click count, but they are hardly accurate.
  • Bia on March 11 2015 said:
    statements about earthquake and tsunami risk for the K-2/K-3 site are completely unfounded. In fact, many technical studies have been carried out for the site to ensure that the plant would survive the largest tsunami that can be expected in the region. The maximum predicted earthquake could produce a ground acceleration of 0.2g, while the plant has been designed to withstand a ground acceleration of 0.3g, which provides an additional very large safety margin. Similarly, the best technical analyses have indicated the highest tsunami height expected at Karachi is about 2.8 m above Mean Sea Level (MSL), while the K-2/K-3 ground level is 12 m above MSL.
  • China on March 11 2015 said:
    The possibility of accidents occurring in unexpected ways is fully recognised in the design of nuclear reactors, and the concept of “defence in depth” is employed extensively to counter it. Compared to the older designs, the ACP1000 design for the new plant has several additional layers of safety that greatly diminish the probability of any accidental radioactivity release to the environment.
  • Jon on March 11 2015 said:
    it should read "South Africa" not South Sudan. hey man do you proof read after writing your articles?
  • Mudabber on March 12 2015 said:
    The writer seems to be only criticizing these power projects for the sake of it. I can only say if the US or there friends like India and Israel oppose to something like these that means they are surely good for us Pakistanis! Hasn't the US opposed the Iran - Pakistan gas pipeline project that was & is vital for our energy needs and thus economy? China is our good friend which is another reason for US to criticize us.
  • Arron on March 12 2015 said:
    It is one way to criticize China, who is emerging as having largest nuclear industry. It has surpassed the U.S. as leader in high tech supplier. Such false propaganda on China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation has brought in media lights to deviate the attention of the Obama’s visit and nuclear deal. Pakistan has shown more maturity in handling the nuclear technology since a decade and half as compared to India. But still the deal was done to allow India to expand its nuclear program covertly to counter China.
  • waksdlasjdlkasjdlkaj on March 23 2015 said:
    We should applaud China's decision on building nuclear power plant. Let us hope the earthquake happens sooner so that region would fall in a disaster. I suggest building such nuclear reactors in Mecca and Medina. The lesser there pakis are, the better this world would be.

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