Last November, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif performed the ground breaking ceremony of Pakistan’s largest nuclear power projects, Kanupp-II and Kanupp-III. China is providing the two reactors alongside a concessional loan of $6.5 billion for the construction of these $9.59 billion plants. When completed in November 2019, these would add 2,200MW to Pakistan’s electric power, at a very cheap rate. This would indeed mitigate the problems of power shortage and high per-unit cost of electricity. Average price of power generated by Chashma-3 and 4 would be around Rs9.59 per unit, much less than the price of electricity generated by thermal plants running on gas or oil. Due to economy of scales, new Kanupp category plants would produce cheaper electricity than the Chashma class power plants. Nuclear power compares favourably with all other sources except hydro-electric power.

Coal and nuclear power generation processes offer the cheapest per unit generation cost after water and domestic gas. With building of large scale dams irretrievably politicised and dwindling supply of local gas, the choice of cheap electricity is narrowed down to coal and nuclear power plants. Of these two, going by the economy of scales and environmental impact, nuclear power generation is cheaper and cleaner. Nuclear power is cleaner than all fossil fuels in terms of its impact on the environment.

Prime Minister has outlined a vision that by 2050, nuclear energy Pakistan will add 40,000 MWe to country’s energy-mix. Soon after Mr Ahsan Iqbal, minister for Planning, Development and Reforms announced that Pakistan may fulfil this target by 2047, to coincide with the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Pakistan.

Following this landmark decision, various vested interests have lauched a campaign to tarnish the nuclear power generation by attaching to it gloomy tags. The campaign is being managed by those individuals and entities whose interest is in importing expensive fossil fuels for power generation; and those not comfortable with civil nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan.

Knowing well that they cannot argue on professional grounds and win, they have resorted to bringing forth baseless safety and security related   points. Therefore, flimsy concerns are being been raised about nuclear power generation— especially the technological and safety aspects. The dooms day narratives are being floated by making reference to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in the former Soviet Union and the US respectively. In the context of new nuclear power plants, the Fukushima disaster is also been overplayed.

However, after Fukushima important lessons have been learnt and the possibility of accidents occurring in unexpected ways is fully recognised and preventive mechanisms are duly incorporated in the designs of present day nuclear power plants. Post-Fukushima, nuclear power plants are being equipped to cope with the most unlikely scenarios of total blackout and non-functionality of several of the engineered safety features incorporated in these plants. These include multiple barriers in the design and several levels of safety assurance throughout the design, construction and operational phases. These safety upgrades are already being retrofitted in the present operating plants and would be inbuilt features of the new Karachi plants.

Even the Fukushima power plants had survived the massive earthquake that accompanied the tidal wave, but it was the latter tsunami, which incapacitated the emergency diesel generators, that caused the plants to collapse. Subsequent to Fukushima, studies were carried out for the Karachi sites to ensure that the plant systems to be built would survive the biggest earthquake and tsunami that can be expected in the area.

After Fukushima, most countries have continued to construct and plan for new power plants. In Asia the number of under-construction and planned power plants is the highest in the world; around 49 reactors are presently under construction, and there are firm plans for over a 100 more. Countries where these projects are underway include India, China, South Korea and Pakistan. These 149 reactors will be in addition to the 435 reactors already in operation in the world.

Questions are being raised about the design model of Karachi power plants. It has been claimed that the design of the Karachi plants, the ACP 1000, is still under development and thus untried and untested. This is not correct. This design is based on the PWR concept, very similar to the hundreds of such systems operating around the world for more than 50 years. Chashma 1 and 2 power plants are also based on the PWR designs.

The ACP1000 model of the PWR concept, to be commissioned in Karachi, is not an unproven design. The ACP1000 uses the basic PWR design with safety improvements added, to meet the current safety targets of Generation-III reactors and after incorporating the lessons learnt from the Fukushima accident. It is based on the earlier CPR1000 design, which has been used in 15 plants now under construction in China, of which the first unit started operations in 2010.

An American think tank, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has recently released its comparative nuclear security indexation encompassing worldwide nuclear material security. NTI’s proclaimed mission is to strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Its assessment is pegged around a five points’ criterion: quantities and sites; security and control measures; global norms; domestic commitments and capacity; and risk environment. This study has assessed Pakistan as the ‘most improved’ country among nine nuclear armed states. Pakistan, which improved its score by three points compared with 2012, and has demonstrated the largest improvement by any nuclear armed state. Country’s score benefited primarily from increased physical protection and stringent regulation of licences and on-site security reviews. Report credits Pakistan for having an operational Centre of Excellence. Pakistan has also participated in new bilateral and multilateral assistance, although its score for Voluntary Commitments was already high.

Moreover, in a document issued after Prime Minister’s visit to the United States, the White House has acknowledged improvement in a key area of US concern: the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. “Pakistan is engaged with the international community on nuclear safety and security issues and is working to ensure its strategic export controls are in line with international standards,” says the document. “Pakistan is an active participant in the Nuclear Security Summit process and works closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Office of Nuclear Security to promote best security practices,” it adds.

Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) has meticulously examined and scrutinised the entire project, it has also consulted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on all technical aspects of the planned power plants. The provincial Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also given its approval after due diligence. Pakistan has an excellent record of nuclear safety. The present reactor in Karachi, Kanupp1 has been functioning for the last 40 years without any mishap relating to its safety.

While work has started in Pakistan on two Chinese-made ACP1000 reactors, India is still negotiating the purchase of two similar AP1000 reactors from Westinghouse. One Indian newspaper has lamented that while these negotiations are lingering, “China will be able to... sell its third generation nuclear reactors to Pakistan, making its sale a win-win deal for both countries”.

It is inalienable right of the public to know the safety aspects of such projects. Therefore, it would be appropriate if Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and PNRA launch a public awareness campaign so that demagogues, clandestinely representing the vested interests, do not fill the void.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

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