Pakistan’s civil nuclear projects: challenges and future prospects

By Shahzadi Tooba Hussain Syed

To eliminate the menace of load shedding from the country, and to prove Pakistan’s stance and commitment for peaceful uses of nuclear energy, Chashma-III nuclear power plant has been inaugurated that will add 340 MWe electricity to national grid.

Chashma-III Power Plant is no doubt yet another milestone in the Pak-China joint collaborations. This was the third project after successful operation of Chashma-I and Chashma-II projects, which were fully operational and producing 325 and 340 MW respectively.

Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) has successfully built Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs), operated and maintained them with an experience of more than 45 years. All Nuclear Power Projects, including Chashma-III have been approved by Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) for Nuclear Safeguards as per International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreements thereby maintaining highest safety standards.

Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) established the first nuclear power reactor at Karachi named Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP-1/K-1). K-1 was a small 137 MWe Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) operationalized in 1971. K-1 contributed towards power requirement of Karachi for nearly 45 years and has been given an extension of ten years after a careful review by PAEC. The second unit Chashma-1 (C-1) is a 325 MWe two-loop Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) that was installed in May 2000. Its twin unit, Chashma-2 (C-2), was installed in 2011 with an upgraded capacity of 330 MWe. The net capacity of the above three nuclear power plants is 600-700 MWe, which amounts to 4.3 per cent of the total energy mix. Though functioning efficiently, yet the installed nuclear power plants are not enough to bridge energy supply and demand gap. Pakistan, therefore, decided to install another two nuclear power plants C-3 and C-4, each carrying 320 MWe with Chinese assistance to its grid. The work on installation and operationalization of these projects started in 2011 for a functional life of nearly 40 years, under the complete safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Following the progress made on C-2 and C-3, and contextually recognizing the need for more energy, Pakistan, in June 2013 announced that two 1000 MWe class reactors would be installed as K-2 and K-3 adjacent to the site of K1, in Karachi. It is expected that the K-2 and K-3 will be finalized by 2020 and 2021 respectively. The K-2 and K-3 projects are an inescapable necessity for Pakistan, as in recent times, the production of electricity is far outnumbered by the demand coupled with announced and unannounced load shedding are impeding the growth and development. Pakistan was producing 755 MWe electricity from the existing nuclear plants and it would reach to 40,000 MW by 2050. However it is very low with compare to our immediate neighbor’s production capabilities.

Despite fulfilling International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard standards, the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) raised apprehensions about China’s supply of C-3 and C-4. Coincidently, the aim of the NSG was to ensure that transfer of nuclear material would not be diverted to unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycles and nuclear explosive activities. The NSG elaborated and served the purpose of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT – came into force in 1970) Article III and IV. It’s worth noting that China acceded to the NPT in 1992 and signed the provisions of the NSG in 2004. The contracts for C-1 and C-2 were signed in 1990 and 2000 respectively, before China joined the NSG, which imposes an embargo on sales of nuclear equipment to Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) that are not party to the NPT. Therefore, the Chinese official stance is that C-3 and C-4 are similarly “grandfathered,” and arrangements are consistent with those for units 1 and 2.

Secondly, the design of K-2 and K-3 (which is known as the ACP-1000 design) is seen to be in violation of internationally acclaimed safety standards required of a nuclear power plant. According to PAEC, the “ACP-1000 model selected for the new reactors is based on the well-tested PWR concept of which hundreds of systems are operating around the world.” PAEC also reported the ACP-1000 design as a Generation-III plant and claims ‘Passive Safety Systems (PSS),’ which means that no active interference is needed in case of errors or failure. These passive safety systems help the plant’s engineers or operators a maximum of 72 hours to act in case of emergency situations as it has been incorporated with additional security measures unlike the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.

On Accidents’ Evaluation, the evidence shows that the K-1 has been running smoothly for the last 45 years, neither did it release any radiation nor did it create any other predicament for local residents. Furthermore, these fresh K-2 and K-3 power plants, according to the PAEC, are double containment plants that mean radioactivity will remain inside the plant even in case of any misfortune. The Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) has casted low chances of releasing radioactive material from the reactors into the environment. Indeed a double containment wall to avoid the release of radioactive material makes the two nuclear reactors safe. More so, Karachi’s population is within the requirements of nuclear power plants; no development will be permitted in the vicinity of the plants. The design can withstand an earthquake of 9.0 Richter scale. Moreover, Karachi Development Authority clearly prohibits all housing society construction within 5 km of K-1.

On the efficacy of K-2 and K-3, PAEC’s sound credentials and accident free record of operating nuclear power plants up to this date, markdowns any doubts. From 1960s up till now, only two deaths were reported from nuclear plants’ incident, which is not very high. PAEC had carried out surveys that reveal the maximum temperature of water in Karachi is 31oC and the water that is used for cooling the plants only had increased around 2 to 3oC that was still less than harmful level for marine life that is 38oC. The current location of these plants has been regarded as feasible by the relevant authorities such as the PAEC. The National Command Authority has also set up a specialized force for the protection of nuclear installations. There are other issues as well, such as availability of infrastructure, geographical stability against natural disasters and the likes that point to the area outside Karachi as a suitable candidate to host a nuclear plant.

PAEC has initiated a comprehensive nuclear safety & security plan which involves risk assessment, preparedness and an evacuation plan for people living out to 15 km from the site. This feature has become more significant after the Fukushima incident that did not have a natural cooling system as they thought that there would be no electricity shutdown in Japan. It is paramount that the PNRA and PAEC ensure a close coordination with the NDMA in order to reinforce preparedness plans to respond to natural and man-made accidents.

To achieve a mid-term target/plan set out by the PAEC, Chashma-IV Nuclear Power Project to be completed in 2017 and Karachi Nuclear Power Projects K-2 and K-3 will add a total of 8, 800 MW electricity to the National Grid by 2030. A 45 years old K-1 is the best example to pursue all the planned NPP in Pakistan to meet the further energy requirements.

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Shahzadi Tooba Hussain Syed

Shahzadi Tooba Hussain Syed works at Strategic Vision Institute in Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

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