China is committed to controversial plans to expand a Pakistan nuclear power plant using 1970s technology, experts say, even after Japan’s crisis triggered global alarm about safety.
China’s construction of reactors at the Chashma nuclear power plant in the Punjab region of Pakistan drew international unease well before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami battered the 1970s vintage nuclear reactors in Japan, crippling cooling systems and causing radiation to leak into the surroundings.
Those worries could now multiply, but neither Beijing nor Islamabad is likely to cut short their nuclear embrace.
China’s nuclear ties with long-standing partner Pakistan have triggered unease in Washington, New Delhi and other capitals worried about Pakistan’s history of spreading nuclear weapons technology, its domestic instability and the potential holes created in international non-proliferation rules.
Safety is also a major concern, as the reactors at Chashma, including the third and fourth units China has planned, are derived from designs dating back to the 1970s, said Mark Hibbs, an expert on nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has closely followed Chinese-Pakistani nuclear cooperation.
This means they have fewer safety features than the newer models Beijing will increasingly use for domestic nuclear plants.
“The oldest reactor [design] that China is building is this reactor in Pakistan. It’s a very old design,” said Hibbs, who is based in Berlin and visited Pakistan this week.
“If China wants to help Pakistan build a reactor right now, they’re locked into this design,” Hibbs said in a telephone interview, citing patent restrictions and export barriers that prevent China from selling more up-to-date designs abroad.
The radiation leaks at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant are likely to raise new questions about whether China should pursue nuclear power expansion in volatile Pakistan and whether it must first seek approval for the planned reactors from other nuclear exporting states.
Beijing remained committed to Chashma and would probably not seek a green light from a nuclear trade group, said Li Hong (黎弘), a prominent Chinese nuclear expert.
“There’s no doubt that China will go ahead with Chashma because this cooperation with Pakistan has such a long history,” said Li, Secretary-General of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, a government-sponsored think tank in Beijing that focuses on nuclear proliferation issues. “China will absorb lessons about nuclear safety from Japan’s problems, including for Chashma.”
The Chashma power plant is one of two using nuclear reactors in Pakistan. Two of its reactors are already producing electricity in a country with chronic power shortages and China is helping build two more reactors.
The plant is located on plains near the banks of the Indus River, hundreds of kilometers to the south of Kashmir, the site of a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in 2005 that officials say killed 75,000 people. It was also not damaged in last year’s devastating floods.
China suspended approvals last week for new domestic nuclear power plants, but reports on Chinese nuclear Web sites show work on Chashma continued after the calamity hit Japan.
On March 14, two days after Japan’s earthquake, Chinese engineers helped run the first successful test for linking the new Chashma reactor unit to a power grid, said Shanghai Nuclear Engineering Research and Design, which is helping build it.
Last month, China National Nuclear Corp, the nation’s dominant nuclear power company, held a two-day meeting to refine plans for work at Chashma this year, when the new, second reactor is scheduled to go into service.
“In 2011, we will strive to bring the project into commercial operation two months ahead of schedule,” the report from that meeting said.
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