China and Pakistan reached a formal agreement last month to construct a third nuclear reactor at Chashma that the Obama administration says will violate Beijing’s promises under an international anti-nuclear weapons accord.
According to U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials, the secret agreement for the Chashma 3 reactor was signed in Beijing during the visit by a delegation from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission from Feb. 15 to 18.
The agreement calls for the state-run China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) to construct a 1,000-megawatt power plant at Chashma, located in the northern province of Punjab, where two earlier Chinese reactors were built.
China’s government last month issued an internal notice to officials within its nuclear establishment and to regional political leaders urging care to avoid any leaks of information about the nuclear sale that Beijing expects will be controversial, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The reactor deal had been in the works for several years and prompted high-level U.S. government efforts to block the sale because of concerns it will boost Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
The CNNC is China’s main nuclear weapons producer and has been linked in the past to Pakistan’s nuclear arms program by U.S. intelligence agencies. CNNC sold thousands of ring magnets to Pakistan during the 1990s that were used in centrifuges that produced highly enriched uranium for weapons.
Additionally, recent U.S. intelligence reports indicate that China, which supplied Pakistan with nuclear weapons design data and technology, is in the process of modernizing Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to contain as many as 110 warheads.
The arms cooperation is said to include development of a new warhead for Pakistan’s growing missile arsenal as well as assistance in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.
A Congressional Research Service report published Feb. 13 stated, “Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal probably consists of approximately 90-110 nuclear warheads, although it could be larger.”
Islamabad is producing fissile material, adding to related production facilities, and deploying additional delivery vehicles,” the CRS report said. “These steps could enable Pakistan to undertake both quantitative and qualitative improvements to its nuclear arsenal.”
The report warned that spent fuel from Pakistan’s Karachi and Chashma nuclear power plants are vulnerable to theft or attack.
Pakistan produced one of the most dangerous cases of nuclear proliferation in the early 2000s when weapons technology was supplied to Libya, Iran, and North Korea by the supplier group led by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.
The Obama administration has not publicly contested the nuclear cooperation between the two countries in the past to avoid upsetting U.S. covert efforts against Islamist terrorism in the region.
The Beijing-Islamabad nuclear cooperation also has been limited as a result of U.S. efforts to win Chinese support for sanctions on Iran for its illicit nuclear program.
The new reactor sale also will undermine the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a voluntary association with no enforcement mechanisms that is viewed as a key tool in the administration’s effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.