At the World Climate Action Summit of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 22 countries signed a declaration pledging to triple nuclear power capacity by 2050 in a bid to cut reliance on fossil fuels. Experts have pointed out that, ‘the pledge is completely, utterly unrealistic.’ Mycle Schneider, lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) considers it an impossible goal to achieve because of the high capital costs involved, long gestation periods before grid connections, and an overall negative trend of nuclear power development around the world – except China.
Interestingly, China, Russia and India did not sign this pledge even though these countries have ambitious nuclear power generation plans and higher export potential especially in case of China and Russia. Of the 22 states making this pledge, most are from Europe. Lately, Europe has been looking favourably towards nuclear energy as part of its plans to achieve net-zero and has endorsed nuclear energy as eligible for green investment. Much of it depends on the French nuclear industry that has been influencing these policy changes.
Among these pledging states there are also states (Armenia, Ghana, Jamaica, Moldova, Mongolia, Morocco, Sweden and UAE) which are not members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that regulates international nuclear trade. However, their membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and subscription to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol (except Moldova) is likely to circumvent any hurdles in accessing civil nuclear cooperation. Nonetheless, the likelihood of Ghana, Jamaica, Moldova, Mongolia and Morocco – which do not operate even a single Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) – including nuclear power in their energy mixes is doubtful.
While some states wouldn’t pursue nuclear energy despite favourable conditions for access to civil nuclear technology and materials, others – like Pakistan – face a restrictive environment despite commitment to increasing nuclear energy as a viable solution to their energy and environmental woes. Notably, the biggest hurdle in Pakistan’s investment in the nuclear sector comes from its own economic conditions which do not allow for such capital-intensive projects. Nuclear trade restrictions also prevent Pakistan from exploring other potential suppliers.
Over the years, Pakistan has come a long way in increasing its nuclear power capacity from 125 Megawatt electric (MWe) in 1999 to 3262 MWe in 2024. This 26-fold increase in nuclear power capacity would have not been possible without China’s support and Pakistan’s adherence to strict non-proliferation standards by perpetually maintaining IAEA safeguards on these nuclear facilities. Moving forward, Pakistan seeks to increase this power capacity to 8,800MWe by 2030 (over double of current capacity) and to 40,000MWe by 2050 (over thirteen times of current capacity). While Pakistan’s commitment to clean, cheap and stable baseload energy may be resolute, an unfavourable environment for civil nuclear cooperation could be a restricting factor.
Pakistan is the 8th most vulnerable country to the climate change despite its low carbon emissions at less than 1%. However, as it pursues cleaner energy options – nuclear energy in particular – it faces restrictions to international cooperation. So far, Pakistan’s biggest and currently the only supplier is China. As Pakistan pursues its Nuclear Energy Vision 2050, greater access to the market and participation of multiple suppliers will stimulate competition in the country’s nuclear sector. This will also enable nuclear suppliers to invest in a state that is committed to nuclear energy, has operated nuclear power plants safely and securely for over five decades, has a very competent and independent regulator in the form of Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA), applies IAEA nuclear safeguards to all its civilian nuclear facilities without exceptions, and has nuclear liability laws in line with the international laws.
Pakistan’s pursuit of unhindered access to civil nuclear cooperation are met with cynical retorts citing Dr A.Q. Khan’s proliferation episode. This cynicism tends to overlook the strides that Pakistan has made in terms of ensuring horizontal non-proliferation through stringent export control arrangements, aligning its export control guidelines with those of the Multilateral Export Control Regimes (MECR), and consistent compliance with non-proliferation instruments like the UNSCR 1540.
It is about time that restrictions on Pakistan’s access to civil nuclear cooperation are reviewed in light of not just the country’s challenges but those that the world faces at large. Pakistan could be a lucrative market for the international suppliers who currently struggle to find export destinations which are committed to nuclear energy and have necessary infrastructure in place to support safe and secure operations.
Pakistan is vulnerable to climate change that is not of its own doing. In fact, the country is neighboured by two top carbon emitters. If Pakistan is to adopt cleaner energy sources, the benefits would be shared among all the countries given reduction in global carbon emissions. Conversely, if Pakistan is forced to stick with – or even expand – its fossil-based energy production, its individual carbon emissions may still fall within its carbon emissions quota but the overall impact on global carbon emissions may be negative.
Sameer Ali Khan is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com
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