Sunday, June 13, 2010

Asia looks to nuclear power for energy

There was always a suspicion that the 2008 deal by which the George W. Bush administration bent and steamrollered the rules to bring India into the club of accepted nuclear nations would come back to haunt the Americans.

That moment appears to have arrived with the news that China intends to use the same slight-of-hand to build two new nuclear reactors in Pakistan -- which, like India, has not and will not willingly sign the required nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

And there may be many more difficulties waiting in the wings.

Asia has looked at its dependence on fossil fuels, the growing demands of its burgeoning cities and manufacturing industries, its worries about global warming, benighted fishermen and pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, and the ineffectiveness of much-hyped "green alternative" energy, and is pursuing nuclear reactors as the most practical solution.

According to the London-based World Nuclear Association, there are 37 large nuclear reactors under construction in Asia, compared with 18 in the rest of the world.

For the administration of President Barack Obama, which has made strengthening the nuclear treaty's enforcement and even eradicating nuclear weapons a central policy issue, the Asian trends, but especially the immediate question of the China-Pakistan deal, have presented a conundrum.

There is no need for the Obama administration to be consistent with what the Bush government did.

But the Bush White House did not offer Pakistan the same deal as New Delhi because of worries about the security of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal and its past record of spreading nuclear know-how to rogue states -- the very sins said to be uppermost on the Obama list of concerns.

However, after first showing some signs that it might respond to some heavy lobbying within the U.S. and attempt to block the China-Pakistan deal at the critically important, 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Obama administration appears to have decided to roll with the punches.

It is as yet unclear what part the Pakistan nuclear reactor contract played during U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing at the end of May.

There was speculation at the time that the U.S. might let Beijing know it would not block the deal with Pakistan at the NSG, just as China refrained from blocking America's deal with India, in return for assistance on other matters.

Those other matters, of course.

They include Chinese help with getting North Korea back to the table to discuss dismantling its nuclear weapons program, and Beijing's support for a fourth round of sanctions against Iran for ignoring United Nations' demands it stop enriching nuclear fuel.

Well, last week, China supported the Washington-sponsored UN Security Council resolution imposing a fourth round of sanctions on Iran.

This need not have been a payoff by Beijing, because China has -- in the last few years at least -- an honourable record of observing non-proliferation rules and the NSG's voluntary requirements.

Since it joined the suppliers group in 2004, China has been open about its existing agreement to supply civilian, electricity-generating nuclear reactors to Pakistan -- especially the Chashma-2 reactor now nearing completion.

But until now Beijing has deflected Pakistan's requests that China build two more reactors on the same site.

Now that Washington's help for New Delhi to legitimize its previously outlaw nuclear program has prompted Russian, French and Japanese companies to rush for a hand in expanding India's network, China sees no need to be coy about its Pakistan relationship any more.

Mark Hibbs, a senior nuclear policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote last week that as the price of the suppliers' group acceptance of Pakistan as a respectable nuclear state, pressure might be put on Islamabad to drop its current obstruction at the UN Conference on Disarmament of a treaty to halt worldwide production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium suitable for making nuclear weapons.

There is a view that China -- the only one of the five nuclear weapons states that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty not to have also declared a moratorium on producing fissile material -- is a silent backer of Pakistan's obstructionism.

Asia's growing passion for nuclear power is not, on the surface, weapons-based, though that can never be ignored.

In the capitals of Asia, however, there is now a fixed belief that nuclear power is the clean and relatively

cheap option to fill the gap between the domestic energy resources of individual countries and the uncertainties of the market place supply.

Although it must never be forgotten that it was an Asian country, Japan, that has been the only target of nuclear weapons used in anger, Asia as a whole has had a benign experience of using nuclear technology to generate electricity.

There are 112 nuclear-powered reactors in operation at the moment, 37 under construction and commitments to build another 84.

Newcomers considering the nuclear option include Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.

The Philippines, which built a reactor in the 1970s that never went into operation because of safety concerns, is having another look at the possibility.

But China, as in so many other spheres, is leading the way.

China has 11 nuclear reactors in operation, another 20 under construction and plans to increase sixfold the amount of electricity generated by this means by 2020.

jmanthorpe@vancouversun.com