Tuesday July 23, 2024

Energy security and the nuclear program

By Yasir Hussain
May 28, 2021

The month of May marks the 23rd anniversary of nuclear weapon tests in South Asia. Since then, the discourse on non-military aspect of nuclear technology and its enormous potential of peaceful application have overshadowed by its military use.

The creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957 was a watershed moment in the history of nuclear fission technology. Since then, some 30 countries around the globe have been benefiting from over 440 nuclear power reactors, with France leading from the front, where about 70 percent of total electricity generation comes from nuclear technology. It is projected that, by 2050, global nuclear power capacity would reach 506 Gigawatts.

Pakistan is one of the 30 countries in the world to operate a complete nuclear fuel cycle; yet, the country needs a significant build-out of electricity generation capacity to meet current and future demands and, for that, a low-cost nuclear energy option seems vital for Pakistan’s overall energy security.

Pakistan suffers because of an acute energy crisis; an uninterrupted and inexpensive energy supply is a fundamental precondition for the country’s sustainable economic growth and improved human welfare. The energy crisis is estimated to cost around two percent of GDP annually through lowering economic output and exports.

The chronic energy crisis has forced the closure of thousands of factories (including more than 500 alone in Faisalabad), paralyzing economic activity and exacerbating unemployment. Although much of the criticism goes to flawed energy policies pursued for decades by various administrations, poor transmission and distribution capacity — stalled at approximately 22,000 MW against the demand of more than 25,000 MW — remains a real concern for Pakistan’s energy security. In addition, seasonal fluctuations further add to Pakistan’s energy deficiency.

With rising economic activity, the demand for uninterrupted and reliable power supply is also increasing. To meet the increasing energy demand, the burden lies on natural resources which are depleting at a rapid pace. Therefore, Pakistan desperately needs to devise a comprehensive policy to secure its resources, while sustaining its economic growth. In this regard, nuclear energy has the full potential to lift the burden from the rapidly depleting energy resources.

Pakistan is not alien to the concept of peaceful nuclear technology and its utility. It has a history of over 40 years of experience in operating nuclear power plants — and that too without any safety and security incident. The IAEA and other global nuclear watchdogs have, on multiple occasions, praised Pakistan’s commitment to the safety and security of its nuclear power plants. At the moment, Pakistan operates five nuclear power plants on two sites, one unit – the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) at Karachi, and four units of Chashma Nuclear Power Plants at Chashma. The gross capacity of these five nuclear power plants is 1430 MW.

Pakistan’s nuclear energy contributions are meager when compared with a developed country such as France, where nuclear energy contributes to almost 70 percent. Pakistan lags behind other countries when it comes to the installed capacity of nuclear power generation.

The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) has intensified efforts to meet the nuclear electricity generation target of 8,800 MW by the year 2030. It is a part of the comprehensive Energy Security Plan formulated in 2005. The Economic Survey 2019-20 states that the completion of the K-2/K-3 project will bring the PAEC closer to achieving this target.

One of the primary motivations behind Pakistan’s increasing reliance on nuclear energy appears to be worsening climatic conditions. Three of Pakistan’s major cities — Karachi, Lahore, and Faisalabad — have been placed on the list of most hazardous cities. Pakistan’s massive coal consumption for its energy needs also adds to environmental degradation, which contributes to 25 percent of the power generation mix. Therefore, nuclear energy, being affordable, clean, and friendly to the environment, appears to be the best alternative for Pakistan’s energy needs.

Pakistan’s impressive track record of the safe and secure operation of its nuclear energy programme is a clear depiction of its national resolve and commitment towards effective implementation of stringent policies and global standards. Former DG IAEA, Yukiya Amano, on his visit in 2018 to the various nuclear facilities of the PAEC, appreciated the safety and security mechanism of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Subsequently, the IAEA in 2018 initiated a four-year programme with Pakistan to closely coordinate with the country’s key nuclear energy institutions on safe, reliable, and sustainable operations of nuclear power plants. All this shows Pakistan’s strong desire and commitment to uplift its socio-economic outlook by benefiting from the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

The utility of nuclear technology in Pakistan isn’t confined to the domain of energy and power production. Pakistan has been successfully utilizing nuclear technology in various sectors including agriculture, medicine, and scientific research and development. The PAEC runs 18 medical centers spread all over the country, which use nuclear medicines to treat deadly diseases such as cancer. The utility of nuclear technology in Pakistan’s agriculture sector, particularly the development of high-yield stress-tolerant crops, reflects the country’s commitment to peaceful usage of this technology.

The UN has devised 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. Among these, environmental protection, agriculture, food security, and health are included. Pakistan’s peaceful nuclear programme has been playing a crucial part in meeting these goals. The IAEA, being the flag bearer of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, should assist Pakistan in expanding its international nuclear cooperation, so that the international community can benefit from Pakistan’s experiences and vice versa.

Although Pakistan has over 40 years of remarkable experience in the safe and secure operation of nuclear power plants, it often faces international discrimination. This discrimination stems from unjust international practices. Lack of access to the international nuclear market and technology denial by global powers hurts Pakistan’s energy security. Pakistan has both the capacity and the expertise to become an active participant in global peaceful nuclear cooperation.

The only thing that restricts Pakistan from a meaningful global contribution in peaceful nuclear cooperation is the double standards of various international nuclear cartels, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The cartel needs to revisit its policies, particularly country-specific exemptions being awarded to non-NPT signatories such as India. Such policies need to be changed to enable countries like Pakistan to realize their full potential for not only the betterment of their people but for all of humanity.

The writer is a former SAV Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC.