Navigating new horizons: the legal framework for SMRs in Pakistan

Sunday 16 June 2024

Sahar Iqbal

Akhund Forbes, Karachi, Pakistan



In recent years, Pakistan has faced rising inflation, natural disasters and the risk of loan default. Pakistan relies heavily on imported fuel and, due to its faltering economy, has been unable to pay electricity producers resulting in circular debt. Energy constraints exacerbate Pakistan’s already serious pollution and environmental issues.

As such, Pakistan must find a long-term solution to meet its increasing energy demands. To do so, Pakistan could increase investment in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), leveraging Chinese assistance through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As the name implies, SMRs use a conventional nuclear reactor mechanism that are small enough to be easily transported to their intended installation site. The reactors’ small size is intended to reduce construction timetable, costs and disaster risks.

Adoption of SMRs

While SMRs are easy to deploy, critics contend that the technology does not adequately address concerns about nuclear technology. The installation of nuclear energy infrastructure is frequently contentious, ranging from site selection to radioactive material disposal and management. Some analysts feel that SMRs produce energy on too tiny a scale to replace existing methods of energy generation. SMR supporters, on the other hand, feel that because wind and solar energy are still too expensive or inconvenient for many countries to meet their energy needs, nuclear energy is best suited to fuelling a green energy transition. Because SMRs contain less fissile material, large-scale disasters are less likely, making the technology more acceptable to the general public than traditional larger reactors.

SMRs have yet to be widely adopted, as the international community continues to debate best implementation strategies. Currently, China and Russia are among the world’s first SMR operators, but states such as the United States, South Korea and Argentina have allowed SMR design and construction. As a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Pakistan has received international support in meeting nuclear safety and transparency criteria. However, Pakistan’s nuclear energy sector currently accounts for less than 10% of its total energy production. Pakistan may find SMRs to be viable alternatives to conventional reactors, providing a sustainable energy source with modest production while reducing its reliance on imported fossil fuels.

Prospects for SMRs: China-Pakistan Nuclear Cooperation

China has already made significant investments in Pakistan’s energy production, primarily thermal energy, with smaller investments in renewable energy sources. However, since 2003, China-Pakistan collaboration in the transfer of peaceful nuclear technology has steadily increased, with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) leading the majority of the projects. Pakistan was the first country to adopt Chinese Hualong One reactor technology, with two of the reactors fully operational at the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP). With the planned installation of another Hualong One with a 1200-Megawatt capacity at the Chashma Nuclear Power Plant (CHASNUPP), China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation is becoming more extensive.

SMR investment could be mutually beneficial for China and Pakistan. CPEC investment has primarily focused on traditional energy sources, reflecting Pakistan’s reliance on fossil fuels. In the future, KANUPP and CHASNUPP may become oversaturated and unable to be enlarged. SMRs would be less expensive to build than new traditional reactors, helping Pakistan move away from fossil fuel dependence.

Legal framework and recommendations

Although Pakistan has not yet developed a legal framework pertaining to SMRs, the PAEC and the PNRA would lead the country’s approach to SMRs. Recognising the promise of SMRs, it would be important to create a legal and regulatory framework that allows for the safe deployment and operation of these reactors based on the following:

  1. Licensing and certification: The PNRA would be charged with the crucial responsibility of licencing and certifying nuclear plants in Pakistan. Adapting existing regulatory systems to accommodate novel and diverse SMR designs is a priority. The objective is to develop a simplified, effective licencing structure that meets the highest safety standards without hindering innovation.
  2. Safety and security: While SMRs’ intrinsic safety features are a huge advantage, the legal framework must also assure strong safety and security measures. Physical security, cybersecurity protections and tight control over nuclear materials are all suited to the unique characteristics and deployment scenarios of SMRs.
  3. Environmental and waste management: The legislative framework for SMRs must address environmental concerns as well as manage nuclear waste. Pakistan’s approach includes restrictions for waste minimisation, safe storage and disposal, which ensure that SMR deployment is consistent with environmental sustainability goals.
  4. Cross-border cooperation and international standards: Given the global interest in SMRs and the possibility of international collaboration in their development and deployment, Pakistan’s legislative structure should be likewise designed to be consistent with international standards. This would rely heavily on international cooperation, such as the IAEA, as well as adherence to international safety and security requirements.


In conclusion, the prospect of SMRs presents a promising avenue for Pakistan to handle its pressing energy needs while minimising environmental concerns and dependency on imported fuels. Pakistan has the ability to pioneer the adoption of SMR technology in South Asia through strategic engagement with China under the CPEC, capitalising on Chinese achievements and nuclear energy investment. Establishing a comprehensive legal and regulatory framework, led by the PAEC and the PNRA would be critical for guaranteeing the safe, efficient and long-term deployment of SMRs. By adopting SMR technology, Pakistan may not only improve its energy security but also position itself as a pioneer in the adoption of advanced nuclear technologies.