Pakistan's Nuclear Program

Mark Donohue
March 15, 2014

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2014

Fig. 1: Locations of Pakistan's three current commercial reactors (CHANUPP-I & II in Chashma and KANUPP-I in Karachi). (Adapted from Wikimedia Commons)

Events Prior to the Non-Proliferation Treaty

In 1956, Pakistan established the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) to investigate the use of nuclear fission reactors to help in the economic development of the country. [1] The initial focus of the PAEC was to establish a foundation for their future nuclear program through the training of physicists and engineers. As part of its Atoms for Peace initiative, the United States had been training nuclear scientists and engineers since 1955 at Argonne National Laboratory. Pakistan took full advantage of this opportunity to develop the technical background to support their nuclear ambitions. In 1957, the U.S. and Pakistan signed an agreement in which the U.S. agreed to provide a research reactor in addition to assistance in the development and operation of power reactors, provided that the total cost didn't exceed $350,000. This limited support would only have allowed for Pakistan to construct a small research reactor, one not capable of producing enough electricity to be commercially viable. The first Pakistan Atomic Research Reactor (PARR-I) reached criticality at the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) in 1965. [2] Pakistan still intended to build a power reactor, and found other avenues to do so.

Just prior to the start of construction on PARR-I, Pakistan came to an agreement with Canada to build its first commercial nuclear reactor. The reactor, provided by the Canadian General Electric Company (CGE), was to be a 137 MW Canadian Deuterium (CANDU) reactor. [1] Canada had previously supplied a similar reactor to India in partnership with the U.S. in 1954, appropriately named the Canadian-Indian Reactor, U.S. (CIRUS). In the CIRUS agreement, Canada had required that India only use the technology for peaceful purposes but had not outlined any manner in which the plant was to be inspected. This made it difficult for them to monitor whether or not India was moving towards the manufacturing of nuclear bombs. [3] In an effort to avoid remaking past mistakes, Canada included as part of their agreement with Pakistan that the Pakistani nuclear reactor would be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. Pakistan naturally resisted the imposition of stricter terms than those that were given to India. The situation differed from CIRUS, though, in that the Pakistani reactor was to be paid for by loans from the Canadian government. Canada offered Pakistan the option to pay for the reactor themselves to avoid the IAEA inspections. Because Pakistan was unable to afford the reactor, they accepted the conditions they were given. [2]

Construction on the reactor began in 1967 in Karachi. The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) went critical in 1971. Commissioning of the plant was interrupted, however, by the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, in which India aided East Pakistanis in seceding to form Bangladesh. The hostilities with India as well as the lack of support from the U.S. during the war led Pakistan to officially adopt a nuclear weapons program in 1972, just prior to the inauguration of the KANUPP- I. [1,4]

Pakistan's Nuclear Independence

In 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) went into effect. This initiated the gradual withdrawal of technology and supplies by the U.S. and Canada because of Pakistan's lack of participation in the NPT. In 1974, India detonated an atomic bomb at its Pokhran test site. Although this was independent of Pakistan's nuclear program, members of the NPT were cautious to support anyone who had not signed the treaty for fear of proliferation, and thus withdrew their support of Pakistan completely. By 1976, Canada and the U.S. had cut off supplies of highly enriched uranium fuel for the PARR-I and other nuclear supplies. [2] Left without support necessary to maintain its existing nuclear infrastructure, Pakistan shifted its focus to developing its own support system internally as well as looking elsewhere for foreign support.

Pakistan established the KANUPP Nuclear Power Training Centre (KNPTC) in 1973 to begin making spare parts and supplying nuclear fuel that fit the CANDU specifications. [2] That same year, Pakistan began negotiating with France to build a nuclear reprocessing plant to enrich plutonium. They contended that the plant was to be used to help Pakistan meet its energy needs. The U.S., believing that Pakistan lacked the resources to fully flesh out a large nuclear infrastructure, assumed the plutonium was to be used for military purposes. Consequently, the U.S. actively tried to dissuade France from conducting the sale to Pakistan and ultimately succeeded in doing so in 1977 when France agreed to cancel the sale, but not before approximately 95% of the schematics had made their way to Pakistan. [2,4]

Concurrently with the negotiations with France, Pakistan had begun pursuit of another reprocessing facility, this time from a Belgian firm named Belgonucleaire. This design did not demand the IAEA safeguards that the French plant would have, and thus opened up the possibility to produce weapon's grade plutonium. The resulting reprocessing plant was known as "New Labs." Its intended purpose was to train scientists and engineers in reprocessing with the hope that they would eventually work at larger, commercial reprocessing plants. New Labs had the capacity to produce the equivalent of between two and four atomic bombs in plutonium per year upon completion. [2]

During this time, Pakistan also entered into an agreement with China. In exchange for allowing China access to the Western technology Pakistan possessed, Pakistan received help from China in furthering its enrichment capabilities. China also provided Pakistan with uranium hexafluoride, a chemical compound used in uranium enrichment, and nuclear weapons designs. [5] Pakistan further bolstered its nuclear weapons program when they began work on another heavy water reactor in 1987. The Khushab reactor, modeled off the CIRUS design, was intended to be used for plutonium production rather than commercial electricity. Because the plant was not supplied by members of the NPT, it was not under IAEA safeguards. [2]

Pakistan's dealings with China were not solely centered on nuclear weapons, however. In 1986, the two entered into an agreement that focused on peaceful uses of atomic energy. This gave way to plans to construct two light water reactors at the Chashma Nuclear Power Complex. The power plants, Chashma Nuclear Power Plant (CHANUPP)-I and II, are operated with the intention to produce electricity and, unlike the Khushab reactor, were not designed as plutonium producers. Construction began on CHANUPP-I in 1989, but construction on CHANUPP-II wouldn't begin until 2005. [1,2,6]

Pakistan did a great deal after the imposition of the NPT to support and expand their existing nuclear infrastructure as well as to develop their nuclear weapons program. In 1990, Pakistan removed its cap on the enrichment of uranium to further enhance its nuclear capabilities as it tried to keep pace with India. In 1995, Pakistan offered to support the nonproliferation effort if it meant that India would no longer be a threat, and in 1996, they declared that they wouldn't sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty unless India also did. Tensions came to head when India tested several nuclear explosives in May of 1998. Although the U.S. attempted to avoid a Pakistani response by offering economic incentives and threatening punitive measures if they were to respond, Pakistan ultimately felt that benefits outweighed the possible costs and performed their own nuclear detonations on May 28th and 30th. [4]

Post-Detonation to Present

Following the demonstration of their nuclear weapons capabilities, Pakistan contended that its test was purely reactionary, and that their intent was only to counteract the Indian threat. Members of the UN Security Council were concerned that the conflict between India and Pakistan could escalate with disastrous consequences now that nuclear weapons were involved, however, and they issued economic sanctions against Pakistan for carrying out the tests. Despite their previous relationship with Pakistan regarding nuclear weapons, China supported the sanctions against Pakistan for their tests. [4]

China has continued to support the development of peaceful nuclear technology in Pakistan, though. The CHANUPP-I reactor that began in 1989 began commercial operation on January 9, 2001, and CHANUPP-II was inaugurated in May of 2011. [1,6] In addition to the first two plants, plans are in place to construct two more light water reactors at the same site. CHANUPP-III is slated to be completed in 2016, with CHANUPP-IV following shortly after. [6]

With CHANUPP-II coming online in 2011, Pakistan has three operational commercial nuclear power plants (CHANUPP-I and KANUPP-I being the other two) at the time of this writing. Although the original design life for KANUPP-I was only 30 years when it was constructed in 1972, a program was started in 2002 to extend the life of the plant. Under the stipulation that more redundant safety measures would need to be added, the plant was re-licensed for another 15 years. [1] Presuming that the KANUPP-I will be decommissioned after its 15 year extension and with the other two reactors at the Chashma site, Pakistan will have approximately 1300 MW of nuclear capacity. This puts them well short of their goal for 8.8 GW nuclear by 2030. [6] There were plans for a 1 GW plant that was to replace the KANUPP-I before its extension, but it was put on hold when the government wished to focus on the two Chashma plants. [7] It appears as though a similar plant may be under construction, though, with plans for another reactor of similar size to join it in the near future. Additionally, Pakistan is in talks with China to acquire three more large power plants. Although this deal would go against international rules to share nuclear technology with countries that haven't signed the NPT, China argues that because their nuclear trade with Pakistan predates their agreement to the nuclear export restrictions, their actions are protected. [8]

© Mark Donohue. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] Z. H. Siddiqui and I. H. Qureshi, "Nuclear Power in Pakistan," The Nucleus (Pakistan) 42, 63 (2005).

[2] F. H. Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, (Stanford Security Studies, 2012), pp. 29-31, 52-61, 132-134, 193.

[3] G. Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation, (U. of California Press, 1999), pp. 21-22.

[4] S. Ahmed, "Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons Program: Turning Points and Nuclear Choices," International Security 23, No. 4, 178 (Spring, 1999).

[5] B. Tertrais, "Not a 'Wal-Mart', But an 'Imports-Exports Enterprise': Understanding the Nature of the A.Q. Khan Network," U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, 1 Aug 07.

[6] M. S. Zaafir, "PM Inaugurates 330 MW Chashma-2 N-power Plant," The News International, 13 May 11.

[7] A. Hashim, "Plan to Establish 1,000 MW Kanupp-II Put on Hold," Dawn, 30 Jan 09.

[8] S. Shah, "Pakistan in Talks to Acquire 3 Nuclear Plants From China," Wall Street Journal, 20 Jan 14.