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January 21, 2015

Nuclear misadventures


January 21, 2015


As work on the building of Pakistan’s fifth largest nuclear power plant continues, many newspaper articles continue to enthusiastically appreciate this step. Many analysts have opined that nuclear energy will ultimately provide a low-cost solution to Pakistan’s energy woes.
The government is also aiming to set up six additional nuclear plants in the country to enhance our nuclear power generation capacity to 40,000 MW by 2050. However, amid all this enthusiasm for it, the dangers associated with the safety and design of nuclear power plants are being ignored.
The publicly available information on this new nuclear plant suggests that the government has not done any serious study on the design and operation of the reactors. What is particularly worrisome is that the reactors are based on the ACP-1000 design, which thus far exists only on paper – there is no operating reactor based on this design.
It also shows a serious lack of judgement that nuclear reactors will be built close to a big city. At a time when there is an organised campaign being run in many developed countries that nuclear power plants should be set up only outside of cities, in Pakistan the nuclear establishment is setting up a 2,200MW nuclear power plant in the centre of the country’s largest city, which will be very difficult to evacuate if something goes wrong.
The government seems totally ignorant of the fact that situating reactors close to the centre of population sites is potentially hazardous because of radiation dangers. A nuclear power plant may not explode like a nuclear weapon but a small 200MW reactor contains a huge amount of deadly materials like iodine and strontium, even more than a nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere. These devastating radioactive materials get released in huge quantities if the containment vessel of a reactor is somehow breached.
Despite all necessary precautions, serious nuclear accidents have taken place in advanced countries like

the US, UK, Japan and Canada. While the safety of nuclear power is under question in many countries, it should be of particular concern in Pakistan where a nuclear safety culture is almost absent.
In our country, concerns related to reactor safety and radiation dangers are not critically discussed primarily due to a lack of experts on this subject. We witness daily acts of suicide bombing and other terrorist incidents. The threat of terrorists attacking to destroy a nuclear power plant remains very real. Spent fuel storage facilities at nuclear power plants remain particularly vulnerable to attack or theft by insiders.
Sabotage, terrorist attack or equipment failure could result in large-scale radioactive release. Furthermore, natural disasters like floods and earthquakes have been occurring very frequently in Pakistan over the past few years. The country has very limited capacity to deal with any such disaster.
In addition, there is no statistical evidence to prove that generating electricity from nuclear power is really economical for Pakistan. Some countries like South Korea or France may find the option of nuclear energy economical but it will be very costly for Pakistan in the long run. The amount of $6.5 billion that China has committed to finance this nuclear power plant is in the form of a loan and Pakistan will have to pay it back. Pakistan lacks engineering capacity and will not be able to make its own reactors even within the next 30 years.
Despite a huge military establishment, our nuclear scientists have not done enough work to build technological infrastructure necessary for power reactors. So, the government has to pay an extra price to import the technology for operating these reactors. Some nuclear experts are of the view that the cost figures shared by our government or other suppliers cannot be trusted because their estimates usually fail to take into account many associated costs like money spent on waste disposal, decommissioning, environmental costs, etc.
According to figures provided by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the costs of shutting down a nuclear power reactor range from $300 million to $400 million. This amount is a hefty fraction of the original cost of installing a nuclear reactor and thus surely an extra burden on the national exchequer.
The plans for six more plants may not see the light of day because Pakistan, being a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), is excluded from international trade in nuclear plants and technology. So far, China was Pakistan’s only nuclear supplier but, after getting membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), even China will not be able to transfer technology to Pakistan for these projects.
In 2009, former president Zardari made the surprising announcement that the French government was ready for a civilian nuclear agreement with Pakistan. However, nothing could materialise because the French government had offered to sell technology to Pakistan for safety and monitoring purposes only. On the other hand, after the Indo-US nuclear deal, India enjoys a special status and may even become a member of the NSG in the near future.
Keeping in view all these challenges, a convincing case for nuclear power cannot be established because it is neither safe nor cheap. Unless there is a radical breakthrough in nuclear technology and nuclear scientists become able to build a workable reactor that can be fuelled by the nuclear fusion process rather than nuclear fission, the prospects for nuclear power generation look bleak, particularly in Pakistan.
The government should therefore stop wasting energies and money on these useless projects and rely on a mix of oil, gas, hydro, coal, solar, wind and other renewable sources.
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