PAKISTAN'S nuclear programme is once again under fire. This time the legality of its deal with China for two nuclear reactors ostensibly for civilian purposes is being questioned.
The US has demanded an explanation from Beijing and has asked for details of the accord it concluded with Islamabad three months ago. It wants to be sure that China is not violating the international obligations it undertook when it joined the 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The NSG is a regulatory body to oversee trade in nuclear fuel and technology to ensure that material for civilian energy is not used for manufacturing weapons.
China claims that the 650-megawatt Chashma-3 and Chashma-4 are part of the original deal of 2004 under which Chashma-1 and Chashma-2 were supplied. In other words the new agreement does not violate the NSG's guidelines, it is said. As an extension of the earlier projects, the new reactors will operate under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency as is the case with the existing civilian nuclear reactors that Pakistan has.
Ever since the Bush administration entered into a nuclear deal with India in 2005 and procured a waiver from the NSG, Pakistan has been angling for a similar deal. When Washington refused to oblige, Islamabad turned to its long trusted all-weather ally, China. In April Beijing agreed to lend $207m to Pakistan to pay for two new reactors that would be supplied to Islamabad.
As could be expected the pro-nuclear lobby in the country is ecstatic about the move to enhance the nuclear power generation capacity. The hawks have attacked the US for questioning the latest deal. Here some cautious reflection would be in order. Is the policy to blindly pursue nuclear power justified?
It is important to be clear about the purpose of acquiring more nuclear reactors that are like a double-edged sword which can be used for manufacturing atom bombs or generating electricity. The government insists that no military motives are attached to the Chashma reactors.
Does the government really mean what it says? We do not need any more nuclear weapons. What we have developed after the explosions of May 1998 — 50 bombs perhaps — have not really strengthened us strategically. Today our nuclear status has only made us more vulnerable. On the one hand we are accused of irresponsibly proliferating nuclear technology to other Third World countries. On the other, our allies in the war on terror doubt our ability to prevent our nuclear arms falling into the hands of militants.
Given this international perception of Pakistan's nuclear capabilities, the move to acquire new reactors — even for the generation of electricity — betrays a lack of understanding of the implications of the nuclear geopolitics of the region.
This is a sensitive area and Pakistan must tread carefully. It is no use taking a step that gives the impression that Pakistan is trying to secretly enter into a nuclear race with India. The fact is that for decades Pakistan denied that its nuclear programme had military goals. But that is exactly how it turned out to be when it sprung a surprise on the world by exploding a series of nuclear devices and announcing its debut in the nuclear club.
Given this record, will our assurances that we are observing the NPT guidelines and working only for civilian power generation carry credibility? When nuclear programmes lack transparency, governments come under suspicion and it is really not worth incurring a new charge of cheating on the nuclear front. We have already had enough on our plate with allegations of supporting the Taliban and sponsoring terrorism and a nuclear black market.
Pakistan is already a proclaimed nuclear state though that has hardly enhanced our security. Given the nature of the security threats we face and the war the army is required to fight against the Taliban, it is inconceivable that a nuclear weapon could be used by the army to achieve its war aims. It would amount to bringing a slow and painful death by radiation to our own people.
If we believe Islamabad's contention that the Chashma reactors are only for power generation, then we can logically ask if nuclear energy is the only ideal solution to our power crisis. Nuclear power is expensive and the most demanding in terms of technological skills. At present nuclear energy constitutes only two per cent of Pakistan's electricity generation mix.
Even this small quantum has not been handled as well as it should have been. Take our first reactor in Karachi, Kanupp, that became operational in 1971. It has a designed life of 30 years which ended a decade ago and now Kanupp is operating on an extended life of 15 years which will expire in 2015. It has generally not operated at full capacity and has very often had to be shut down for 'maintenance'. Chashma-1 began operation in 2000 while C-2 has failed to meet its deadline of becoming operational in 2009. It is now expected to be ready next year.
Is it wise to concentrate on nuclear energy? At present the country's energy supply comes mainly from hydel and thermal generation — 33 per cent from the first and 65 per cent from the second. Thermal power generation can be enhanced quite easily by installing more thermal plants. Instead of going in for imported fuel, it is important that indigenous supplies of oil and coal both should be developed.
The country has 3,362 million short tons of proven recoverable reserves of coal. Pakistan's proven oil reserves have been estimated in the CIA World Factbook at 395.6 million barrels in 2009 when production stands at only 60,000 barrel per day. Why not invest in this sector?
It is also difficult to understand why transmission losses of 30 per cent should be tolerated and the problem should not be addressed in earnest. Does it make sense to install new generation capacity while allowing 5,000MW of electricity to be lost in transmission or be stolen by power thieves?