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- Saturday, January 11, 2014 - From Print Edition

A debate has ensued about the safety of the new nuclear power plants proposed to be built near Karachi. Such a debate is not only necessary but also desirable, in view of concerns regarding the possible impact of the two projects on the safety of the population of Karachi.

This is a matter of national importance, given the fact that Karachi is home to Pakistan’s largest urban concentration of nearly 20 million and is the country’s principal port. The positive gain of acquiring 2200MW of power from the proposed power plants would be immense, given the paucity of power in a city that is hungry for energy, and in view of its growing energy needs for the future.

However, it is equally important to consider and carefully assess any possible adverse consequences of the construction and subsequent operation of the two huge power plants. Of course, in doing so, it is important that we avoid hasty conclusions regarding any negative aspects of the plan. We have to assess the natter in a rational and objective fashion, and eschew alarmism and scare-mongering.

In the context of new nuclear power plants, the Fukushima disaster is the first point that comes to mind. The spectre of the terrible tragedy of that accident still haunts the international community. However, two things have happened after Fukushima: (a) important lessons were learnt from the event and (b) the possibility of accidents occurring in unexpected ways is fully recognised and preventive mechanisms are provided in the design of new nuclear reactors.

The safety element has been factored in the design of the new power plants for Karachi. It includes the incorporation of multiple barriers in the design and many levels of safety assurance throughout the design, construction and operational phases. 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 built in the plant. It is learnt that these safety upgrades are already being implemented in the present operating plants and would be inbuilt features of the new Karachi plants.

In fact, the Fukushima power plants survived the massive earthquake that accompanied the tidal wave, but it was the latter, described as a 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.

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

Questions are also raised about the design model of the proposed Karachi power plants. It has been claimed that the design of the Karachi plants, the ACP-I000, is still under development and thus untried and untested. This is not correct. The ACP-1000 design is based on the PWR concept, very similar to the hundreds of such systems operating around the world for more than 50 years. The Chashma 1 and 2 power plants are also based on the PWR designs.

The ACP 1000 model of the PWR concept to be used in Karachi is not an unproven design, and is based on the earlier CPR-1000 design, which has been used in 15 plants now under construction in China, of which the first unit started operations in 2010. The ACP-1000 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. Thus, the criticism of the design is not valid.

In regard to the questions about the approval of the project, the relevant authorities, particularly the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) have meticulously examined and scrutinised the entire project, in which exercise it has also consulted with 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.

Some critics have decried that no public hearings were held before the finalisation of the project. Public hearings are not held for such highly technical proposals, except where property issues are involved. This is not the case in this project.

Thus all considered, it is quite obvious that the fears and apprehensions regarding the new power plants proposed to be built near Karachi run on thin ground and need to be laid to rest. It should not be forgotten, in this context, that Pakistan has an excellent record of nuclear safety. The present reactor in Karachi, Kanupp, has been functioning for the last 40 years without any mishap relating to its safety.

Moreover, on the positive side, these power plants, when completed, will provide a much needed 2200MW of power to a city that is woefully short of energy.

The writer is a former ambassador.

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