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.
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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 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.
China in 2004 joined the group and agreed not to sell additional reactors to Pakistan beyond the two reactors sold earlier. China is not permitted under NSG guidelines to sell nuclear goods to any country that is not part of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Two U.S. officials confirmed that the Chashma reactor deal was finally reached.
Spokesmen for the Chinese and Pakistani embassies could not be reached for comment.
A State Department official declined to provide details of the sale but said it is not permitted under the U.S. understanding of China’s admission to the nuclear group. That understanding is China would not sell additional reactors to Pakistan’s Chashma complex.
"Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) participating governments have discussed the issue of China’s expansion of nuclear cooperation with Pakistan at the last several NSG plenary sessions," the official said.
"We remain concerned that a transfer of new reactors at Chashma appears to extend beyond the cooperation that was ‘grandfathered’ in when China was approved for membership in the NSG."
The administration is expected to protest the sale at an upcoming NSG meeting in June.
Pakistan does not have full-scope IAEA safeguards in place, which is required before China could provide the third Chashma reactor.
The 46-member NSG was formed in 1974. Its stated mission is to "contribute to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons through the implementation of guidelines for nuclear exports and nuclear related exports."
China agreed as part of its NSG membership that it would limit future reactor sales to Pakistan to the Chashma 1 and Chashma 2 reactors.
The officials said China specifically directed Pakistani officials not to make the latest reactor deal public. Beijing sought to avoid the negative publicity expected from the deal that could upset the leadership transition that took place last week at the National People’s Congress, the communist mock parliament that formally appointed top communist leaders to government posts, the officials said.
China also sought to keep the reactor agreement secret from the United States, which this year is serving as the rotating head of the NSG.
The Chinese also urged the Pakistani delegation from the Atomic Energy Commission to play down the recent transfer of control to a Chinese company of the key port of Gwadar that U.S. officials said likely will be used by Chinese warships for port calls. The port is close to the Persian Gulf, where some 20 percent of the world’s oil is produced.
The deal for Chashma was announced in July 2010 during the visit to China by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. However, the announced arrangement was limited to a memorandum of understanding.
Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said Beijing appears to be keeping the Chinese-Pakistan nuclear deal secret to avoid international opposition.
"When it comes to grandfathering, the Chinese, like the Russians before them [in Iran], like a fait accompli, which is probably why they don’t want this made public," Sokolski said in an interview.
Mark Hibbs, with the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, said nothing in the NSG guidelines prevents the Chashma 3 reactor sale.
"The rub is that the NSG guidelines are voluntary understandings of governments," Hibbs told the Free Beacon. "There is no enforcement mechanism. There is, however, a forum for dealing with information that suggests that a participating government is not upholding the guidelines."
The issue could be addressed during the next NSG plenary meeting in June and at working-level NSG meetings prior to the June session, he said.
However, Hibbs said the issue could come up in talks between Washington and Beijing on the renewal of the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement in 2015.
Hibbs said the U.S. government has raised the planned Chashma reactor sale in several NSG meetings.
"When China joined the NSG in 2004, Beijing provided the NSG a list of nuclear items which China said it intended to provide to Pakistan under a longstanding bilateral agreement between Islamabad and Beijing," he said. "This list did not include additional power reactors beyond those already agreed to and under construction in 2004."
However, recently China has said that additional nuclear power reactors to Pakistan are allowed under its earlier contracts.
"A lot of NSG members will tell you they beg to differ," he said. "As of last year, China has not seen fit to provide NSG members any information which would corroborate that reactor sales beyond Chashma-1 and -2 were included in pre-2004 understandings between China and Pakistan."
The administration’s non-proliferation policy and opposition to the Chinese-Pakistani nuclear cooperation was made more difficult by the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement reached in 2005. That deal provides for the sharing of nuclear know-how with a state that like Pakistan is not part of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus not eligible for such transfers.
The NSG altered its guidelines in 2008 to permit the Indian nuclear sales but the Obama administration did not support a similar change for Pakistan.
China, meanwhile, is opposing efforts by the United States, France, Britain, and Russia to allow nuclear-armed India to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Reuters reported from Vienna on Thursday.
The divisions were made known during a closed-door meeting of the NSG on Monday, diplomats told the news agency.
The five states supporting India’s membership were countered by China, which wants its ally Pakistan to join the group.
India has not applied for membership in the NSG and is not expected to join when the NSG holds its major meeting in Prague in June.