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Note No. 101

by B.Raman

The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) announced on May 3 that the Chashma Nuclear Power Plant (CHASNUPP) reactor was made critical the same day. Nuclear fuel had been loaded into the reactor between November 22 and 28 last and it would now be made ready for its connection to the national power grid.

This Chinese-aided plant (cost Rs.31 billion), Pakistan's second commercial nuclear power plant, the first being the Canadian-aided Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP--137 MW), would be under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), like the KANUPP. This light water reactor is designed to generate 300 MW of electricity using 12 tonnes of enriched uranium annually.

Negotiations for Chinese assistance for this plant started in 1989, when Mrs.Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister and completed during the first tenure of Mr.Nawaz Sharif as the Prime Minister in 1991.  The contract was signed on December 31,1991, and the construction started the next year at Chashma, on the left bank of the Indus river, about 30 kms south of Mianwali in Punjab.

The plant, which takes its cooling water from the Chashma-Jhelum link canal and discharges it into the Indus, has been modeled by the Chinese after the Chinese nuclear power station at Qinshan.

China, whose experience in the construction of nuclear power stations for commercial purposes was limited, procured many of the components for the Qinshan plant from abroad such as the giant steel pressure vessel from Japan, the coolant pumps from Germany and the computerised control system from France.  Due to China's relative inexperience in the safety systems, three Japanese safety experts were attached to the plant to advise the Chinese staff.

When China's negotiations with Pakistan started in 1989, there were no restrictions on the sale of nuclear equipment for peaceful purposes to the latter, but after the coming into force of the Pressler Amendment in October, 1990, Washington unsuccessfully pressured Beijing not to go ahead with the project.  The latter contended that since the plant would be under the IAEA safeguards, there was no bar on its selling it to the PAEC.

However, under US pressure, Japan, Germany, France and other Western countries refused to sell any component to China for use in the plant to be supplied to Pakistan.  Hence, the entire plant, except some minor components made in Pakistan, were manufactured in China-- some of them like the computerised control system for the first time-- and assembled in Chashma.

Since last year, questions have been raised by some analysts in Pakistan about the safety of this plant, which is the first attempt by China to manufacture and assemble an entire nuclear power station without any inputs from Japan and the West in the form of components and expertise.

The critics have alleged that the site chosen by the Chinese would be prone to seismic disturbances and that, despite Japanese and Western inputs, the Qinshan plant already had one accident, which damaged some of the radioactive fuel in the reactor, letting it mix with water.

These allegations have been strongly refuted by the PAEC, which has contended that CHASNUPP would be absolutely safe and efficient. However, a PAEC official announced on January 21 that the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Board had authorised the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) to operate the plant from criticality till its satisfactory production at full capacity, after which the responsibility for its operation would be taken over by the PAEC.

In the meanwhile, negotiations have started between the two countries for the supply of another nuclear power station with a similar capacity by China to be installed at the same place.

While there has been some transparency on this plant with both China and Pakistan periodically releasing to the public details of the project, similar details have not been forthcoming about another reactor with a capacity of 40 MW, which has been constructed at Joharabad in the Khushab district of Punjab.

Unlike the CHASNUPP, which is under the control of the PAEC, the Khushab reactor is under the control of the army, which is responsible for its physical protection.  The same security measures, with surface-to-air missile and conventional anti-aircraft emplacements, have been taken at Khushab as for the uranium enrichment plant at Kahuta.

After taking over as the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) in October 1998, Gen.Pervez Musharraf visited the Khushab reactor on November 16,1998, and has been periodically visiting it since then.

The Pakistani authorities describe the Khushab reactor as an experimental one for the production of isotopes and other peaceful purposes and claim that the entire reactor and the heavy water required for its operation were manufactured in Pakistan. They have, therefore, not placed it under IAEA safeguards.

The designing of the project started in 1985, when the late Mohammed Khan Junejo was the Prime Minister, under the supervision of Mr.Bashiruddin Mahmood, believed to be Canadian-trained, who was previously in charge of starting the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant before Mr.Abdul Qadir Khan came from Holland and was placed above him and then was shifted to KANUPP.  Another Pakistani scientist/engineer, who played a leading role in the designing and construction of the Khushab reactor, was the late Afzal Haq Rajput.

The difference between the CHASNUPP and Khushab is that while the former is meant for producing electricity to meet the needs of the Pakistani people, the latter is suspected to be meant to produce weapons-grade plutonium to make miniaturised nuclear weapons for being fitted into the missiles clandestinely procured by Pakistan from China and North Korea.

Pakistan says Khushab is a purely experimental reactor meant for peaceful purposes, but this cannot be verified since it has not placed it under the IAEA safeguards on the ground that it was a 100 per cent indigenous project.

However, this is not so. There is a Chinese role in this project. The "Washington Times" of October 9,1996, had quoted a CIA Memo to the US State Department as saying that China had sold to Pakistan a special skull-shaped dual use furnace.  Its end user was shown as CHASNUPP, but US experts such as Mr.Gary Milhollin, Director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms, said that it could be used only for uranium enrichment or for the production of weapons-grade plutonium.

That is, China supplied to Pakistan sensitive equipment ostensibly meant for the commercial nuclear power station at Chashma, but really for diversion to the weapons facility at Khushab.

In 1996, the Benazir Bhutto Government held a high-profile function at which Mr.N.A.Javed, a Pakistani engineer belonging to the PAEC, was decorated by the President for developing an indigenous facility for heavy water production, thereby freeing Pakistan from dependence on foreign supplies.

However, the "Dawn" of Karachi (June 6,1997) reported that the Khushab reactor, despite being completed, was not able to go into production for want of heavy water.  And then, by the end of the year, it went into production with heavy water supplied by China to the KANUPP, which is under IAEA safeguards, and then diverted to Khushab.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the beginning of October 1997, Mr.Paul Leventhal, President of the Nuclear Control Institute of Washington, accused China of knowingly oversupplying heavy water to KANUPP so that the excess could be diverted to Khushab.

Surprisingly, in a press conference on October 10, 1997, Mr.James Rubin, the then spokesman of the State Department, refuted this allegation and claimed that the US had no evidence to indicate violation by China of its 1994 commitment to the US not to supply materials to Pakistan's unsafeguarded nuclear installations.

Similarly, in relation to reports from its own intelligence agencies that the Khushab reactor is meant to produce weapons-grade plutonium for miniaturised nuclear weapons, the State Department took up the stand that it had no evidence of Pakistan having a capability for the extraction and production of weapons-grade plutonium from the spent fuel of Khushab.

In 1977, France, under US pressure, cancelled a contract for the supply of a plant to Pakistan for the extraction of plutonium from the spent fuel of KANUPP. The State Department's contention was that it had no evidence of Pakistan acquiring this capability from elsewhere, but the "Washington Post" (January 17,1999), quoting a senior national security official, reported that Pakistan already had this facility at the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH), Nilore, and was taking steps to upgrade it to reprocess the entire quantity of spent fuel from Khushab and extract plutonium.

Thus, taking advantage of the reluctance of the Clinton Administration to act on reports from its own intelligence agencies regarding continued Chinese assistance to Pakistan to upgrade its nuclear weapons capability, Beijing has been going ahead with its collusion with Pakistan. This should be a matter of concern to India.


(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat,Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: