The Chashma-III nuclear reactor, some 250 kilometers southwest of Islamabad. Photo: AFP / handout
The Chashma-III nuclear reactor, some 250 kilometers southwest of Islamabad. Photo: AFP / handout

Today, nuclear energy is the second-largest clean and low-carbon energy source after hydro. Currently, 450 nuclear reactors are producing 11% of the total electricity worldwide. In the next five to six years, when 60 reactors now under construction and 150-160 additionally planned are also commissioned, half of the power needs of the world will be met through nuclear energy. Therefore, there is immense trade potential for technology, services, material and equipment in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

On April 3 in Akkuyu, Turkey, construction began on the country’s first nuclear power plant. With capacity to generate 4,800 megawatts of electricity, the plant will be operational by 2023 at an estimated cost of around US$20 billion.

Just guess what Pakistan’s share in this historic project is, given that  Islamabad enjoys exceptionally good relations with Ankara and its excellence in nuclear technology is very well established, from power generation to the building of nuclear weapons.

You would be amazed to know that Pakistan’s share is zero. The nuclear plant is being solely built by Russia.

This is because Pakistan is not part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and is not licensed to export nuclear-related services, equipment or material, not even for civil use, to any country. This is a real diplomatic challenge to Pakistan and needs to be immediately reviewed.

The NSG was created after India exploded a nuclear device in 1974. It was alleged that nuclear technology transferred by Russia to India for peaceful purposes was misused to make nuclear bombs. India at that time was in the Soviet sphere of influence, so the United States voiced strong concerns against nuclear proliferation. Indian had neither accepted International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on its nuclear facilities nor signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Later, when India drifted into the American camp, US president George W Bush signed a nuclear deal with New Delhi in October 2008, and eight years later, in 2016, president Barack Obama announced open support for India’s joining the NSG. The only reason for favoring India was that it is a vast market and has the cash. And quite often, for the sake of dollars, international covenants and laws are trampled.

The New York Times in an editorial on June 4, 2016, “No exceptions for a nuclear India”, advocated criteria-based policy for all nations and termed the new development a dangerous bargain for nuclear non-proliferation. The newspaper opined that “for years, the United States has sought to bend the rules for India’s nuclear program to maintain India’s cooperation on trade and to counter China’s growing influence.”

A recent report  by US think-tank the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School declared the Indian nuclear program “unsafe.” The report identified different problems arising from the commitment gaps of India made after its nuclear deal. The independent US report emphasized India’s separation plan for civilian and military nuclear facilities and its safeguard agreements for the sake of peace in the region.

India has been trying hard to get an exception to join NSG whereas not only China but other countries including Turkey, New Zealand, South Africa and Austria are insisting on making no exception for India to join NSG without signing the NPT. Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts, too, cannot be ruled out in India’s disappointment over not being able to join the NSG.

Pakistan formally applied for NSG membership on May 19, 2016, and informed its chairman in writing that it “attaches high priority to nuclear safety and security. It has taken legal, regulatory and administrative measures to bring nuclear safety and security at par with international standards.”

Pakistan further stated that “its export control regime is underpinned by strong legislation, regulatory and enforcement mechanisms. The national export control lists are harmonized with the control lists of NSG, MTCR [Missile Technology Control Regime] and Australia Group.”

Pakistan’s plan to become an NSG member has come under a cloud after recently imposed sanctions by the US. The sanctions include a ban on seven different Pakistani companies over suspected links to their nuclear trade. From time to time negative cautions about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure have been fashioned by the Indian lobby.

The issues raised on the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear program seem agenda-driven rather than an academic or scholarly exercise. Pakistan has developed security and safety systems with the help of the United States

The issues raised on the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear program seem agenda-driven rather than an academic or scholarly exercise. Pakistan has developed security and safety systems with the help of the United States, particularly after the A Q Khan scandal over illegally trading nuclear secrets to other countries in 2004.

An elite security division for nuclear safety and security has been established that is much bigger than the mechanized infantry division. To prevent accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, it has been ensured that the nuclear warheads are stored  at different locations from non-nuclear assemblies. Furthermore, one can count the number of people on one’s fingers who know exactly where Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are stored. These are some of the arrangements of the Pakistan National Command Authority.

Pakistan has now reached the pinnacle of excellence in nuclear technology. Robert Ashley, the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, confirmed  that “in January 2017, Pakistan has conducted the first test launch of its nuclear-capable Ababeel ballistic missile, demonstrating South Asia’s first multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) payloads.” MIRVs allow a single missile to deliver multiple warheads against different targets.

India and Pakistan, though struggling to join the 48-nation NSG for many years, are still outside of that circle of trust. This is because of a zero-sum game being played between India and Pakistan. Both countries are deprived of economic growth through export of expertise, manpower and infrastructure, as well as the ability to supply NSG-controlled items, goods and services for a full range of nuclear applications even for peaceful uses.

France was non-NPT when it became a member of the NSG in 1974. However, later, in 1992, France signed the NPT. Even the NPT allows civil nuclear cooperation with non-NPT countries.

India and Pakistan are nuclear-weapons states and the world should recognize this fact. Both countries have sizable nuclear arsenals, and therefore, Pakistan and India both should sign the NPT immediately. The zero-sum game between India and Pakistan must come to an end for the betterment of the masses.

The militaries of Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons and there is visible horizontal and vertical growth in both countries. Not allowing them to join the NSG only works against the common folk who are not being allowed to benefit from peaceful nuclear trade and services.

Nuclear power is one way we can reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Joining the NSG would give Pakistan and India better access to low-cost, clean nuclear energy – important for their economic growth. Pakistan in particular could overcome its economic difficulties by earning billions of dollars if it were allowed to join the NSG and export its expertise for peaceful nuclear programs.

It is time for Pakistan and India to cooperate in this important issue.

Atta Rasool Malik hails from the semi-tribal areas of Pakistan. He holds an MPhil degree in International Relations from the National Defence University in Islamabad. Apart from horseback riding, his interests include reading and writing about the security of South Asia and the Middle East.

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