ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif laid the foundation on Tuesday for two nuclear power plants to be built with China’s help, a development he described as a major step in meeting Pakistan’s growing energy demands.
“The beginning of the 2,200-megawatt power project is indeed a proud moment in the energy history of Pakistan,” Mr. Sharif said at the groundbreaking ceremony in the coastal city of Karachi, which the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Sun Weidong, and officials from Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission attended.
“For achieving the goal of energy, nuclear power will form an increasingly significant component,” Mr. Sharif said, adding that he was told by the Chinese officials that the project, Karachi Coastal Power Project (K-2/K-3), will be completed in six years.
Energy supply remains one of the most pressing concerns in Pakistan, and it was a major issue in the general elections last May, when Mr. Sharif promised in his campaign speeches to end crippling shortages that have hobbled the economy. After taking office, his first visit was to China, where he discussed the nuclear power plant projects.
However, Pakistani officials have provided few details of how they plan to finance the projects. In September, the International Monetary Fund approved a $6.6 billion loan to help stabilize Pakistan’s struggling economy and tackle the energy crisis.
The cost of the new reactor project is estimated to be $9.59 billion, with China providing extensive construction help and expertise. Further, China will provide maintenance and enriched uranium for fuel.
Mr. Sharif did not mention financing in his speech, but he said that he has assured the Chinese investors that his government “will support them in every way.”
China has signaled its intent to expand nuclear energy cooperation with Pakistan in joint statements from their leaders, Mr. Zhang said in a telephone interview.
“Both countries have expressed their willingness to expand cooperation in civilian nuclear energy,” he said. “In that sense, you didn’t need a crystal to see this project coming.”
China is almost certain to deem the new projects as a “grandfathered” extension of nuclear cooperation agreements signed with Pakistan before China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group, meaning that China will not consider seeking approval for the reactors from the group, Mr. Zhang said. He said the major member states in the group, including the United States, also appeared unlikely to go beyond relatively restrained, formulaic expressions of concern about the new reactors.
“My analysis is that this issue won’t trigger too much controversy,” he said. “The Indian government will certainly respond, but I don’t think that this will fundamentally harm Sino-Indian relations, because it’s not something that has come out of the blue. China and India have exchanged views on this many times.”
On the supplier group’s likely response, Mr. Zhang said: “I don’t think the N.S.G. will formally raise this issue, because the experience in the past was that the members would reach an implicit understanding, and so this issue never caused a big fuss in previous N.S.G. meetings.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not commented on the project with Pakistan. But in the past, it has said that China’s nuclear cooperation with Pakistan is entirely peaceful and comes under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
“China’s supplies to Pakistan are under full I.A.E.A. safeguards,” said Mansoor Ahmed, a Pakistani analyst who is a visiting research scholar at the Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, N.M. “However, the Chinese have chosen to ignore criticism with regard to the N.S.G. restrictions, which are subject to various interpretations, in view of the India-U.S. nuclear deal.”
Mr. Ahmed also stressed that the two reactors were being sold under a civilian nuclear cooperation framework concluded in 1986 before China becoming a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1992 and the N.S.G. in 2004. “Therefore, the Chinese don’t need N.S.G. approval for the sale of new reactors in spite of Indian protests,” he said.
Mr. Sharif on Tuesday also announced plans to build six more civilian nuclear plants in other parts of the country. But Mr. Zhang said that China was unlikely to build any more nuclear reactors in Pakistan beyond the two units in Karachi.
The choice of Karachi is significant as it is considered Pakistan’s economic and trade center. “Today people look with envy toward cities like Dubai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore,” Mr. Sharif said in his speech, which was broadcast live on state-run television.
“I wish to see Karachi in this list of harbors and industrial hubs.”