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The cost of going nuclear

People have been protesting the construction of nuclear power plants, especially the ones being built near Karachi. Is nuclear really necessary when we have plenty of wind and sun to power the country?

The cost of going nuclear

A series of groundbreaking ceremonies were lined up for the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Four were energy projects and he was happily going to declare a ‘loadshedding free’ Pakistan by the end of this year.

One of those projects was the inauguration of the Chinese backed 340MW Chashma-IV nuclear power plant currently on test run and which will become commercially operational in the third week of August.

Every time nuclear power plants are mentioned, these invoke the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale hit the Tohoku region, in Japan, causing a massive 13-15 meters high tsunami and water entered the plant crippling it. A year later, the power company, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), admitted it could have taken steps to prevent the catastrophe if they had adopted more extensive safety measures.

Even after six years, the reactors are still spewing radiation. The company has recently decided to release 777,000 tons of water laced with tritium (a radioactive form of hydrogen) into the Pacific Ocean.

“Japan has shown that even the best managed plants are not immune to natural disasters,” said Adil Najam, dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. He said the “technological prestige” associated with nuclear energy had fizzled out and it was no more the ‘shiny toy’ it once was.

Instead the cutting edge of scientific and technological achievement today is wind, solar, geothermal and wave. “If showing off is what you want to do, then the bragging rights are now with renewables!” said Najam.

The same is endorsed by physicist Dr A.H. Nayyar, who believes nuclear energy is looking increasingly less efficient and more riskier in front of wind and solar. The latter, in particular, was just waiting in the wings till a revolution in conversion efficiency takes place, he said.

Pakistan, today, is generating not more than 1,200 MW of electricity from four nuclear power plants in operation. The first one Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (I) with an installed capacity of 137 MW (generates not more than 85 MW) was installed in 1972 and has lived its life; then came the two units of 325 MW at Chashma (2000 and 2011) followed by the third unit of 340MW that began operating in 2016. The two units (KANUPP 2,3) at Paradise Point, 30 or so km from Karachi once completed by 2021 will be the bigger units of 1,100 MW each. The PAEC also plans to install three Chinese nuclear reactors at Muzaffargarh of 1,000 MW each.

The proponents of nuclear energy often use the climate change argument to back nuclear plants. But, environmentalists say radioactive waste products are, perhaps, the dirtiest of all.

“Compare this with the total electricity generation capacity of 24,000 MW by all the sources combined. So its share in installed capacity is just about 4 per cent,” pointed out Nayyar.

By 2021, even when the two plants near Karachi begin operating, the total installed capacity will still be just 3,400 MW. By 2030, Pakistan plans to add a total of 8,800 MW to its basket of energy.

Even then the portion of energy produced by nuclear is still going to be less than 10 per cent. Azfar Minhaj, one of the directors at the PAEC agreed that the target was a very small percentage of the overall energy mix, “but every country makes its own decision, how and to what extent to diversify”.

“We availed the opportunity provided by China (when no other country was supporting us financially) to invest in nuclear power plants to meet some of our energy needs,” said Minhaj.

But instead of asking for nuclear technology, Pakistan could have asked China, a global leader in putting up fresh wind power plants, to help it in putting up wind farms when it had a huge potential in that area.

“Ultimately the rods, which will remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, will have to be disposed off by burying them deep underground in an area where there is no underground aquifer.” – Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy

“China installs wind plants worth 25,000 megawatts anually, and by the last year, the total wind power installed in China was 170,000 MW. China is, therefore, a power house in wind power technology. In the last 15 years, Pakistan has only been able to put up wind power of only about 200 MW, which by Chinese standards is just 3 days’ work!” pointed out Nayyar.

Vaqar Zakaria, an energy sector expert, is satisfied with what he terms a fairly “balanced” energy mix in the form of coal fired, hydro and LNG fired-power generation under construction.

“Whatever the strategic objectives of Pakistan, the country should be well served with this capacity, and none more needs to be added,” said Zakaria, managing director of environmental consultancy firm Hagler Bailley Pakistan.

He said what was more important now was “fixing the centralised transmission and distribution system which can bring about a meaningful reduction in transmission and distribution losses, inclusive of theft.”

A proponent of solar, he said space needed to be created for it as well as for hydro projects since they were “critical for food security and flood control”.

And what about the ‘exorbitant’ cost of setting up, operating, maintaining and later decommisioning and taking care of the spent fuel of a nuclear plant, pointed out Najam. The two nuclear power projects underway in Karachi with a cumulative capacity of 2,200 MW are estimated to cost over $9 billion.

On the other hand, said Zakaria, for solar: “Large amounts of capital can be mobilised at consumer level thereby making them participants in the power industry, as opposed to large scale power generation which is subject to delays or have transparency risks and have relatively higher environmental costs.”

Zofeen

The proponents of nuclear energy often use the climate change argument — nuclear being a low carbon power source — to back new nuclear plants.

But, environmentalist Dr Hassan Abbas, says nuclear is touted as ‘clean’ energy only as far as emissions of green house gases are concerned. “Its radioactive waste products are, perhaps, the dirtiest of all.”

He said dumping of nuclear waste remains largely “unresolved” across the globe. Giving the example of US where the waste from New York was proposed to be dumped in Nevada and Arizona, he said the proposal fell a victim of NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome.

In the case of Pakistan, said physicist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission is keeping the spent fuel rods on the KANUPP and Chashma sites in large ponds cooled by circulating water. “But ultimately the rods, which will remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, will have to be disposed off by burying them deep underground in an area where there is no underground aquifer.” He said areas of Balochistan have been investigated but it is unclear which, if any, have been selected for the ‘final burial’.

Zakir Noor Khan, general manager at K2, K3 plant, conceded that disposal of spent fuel was an issue that was being grappled with. At the same time, he said no site has so far been identified for Pakistan’s nuclear power plants disposal.

“In the mid-term, we have the capacity to store the spent fuel at the site it is being generated,” added Azfar Minhaj. He said, “The fuel can be reprocessed and new fuel made; it’s not waste.”

But more than anything, it is the risk, nuclear power plants pose that makes people like Nayyar and Hoodbhoy uncomfortable that far outweigh any advantages that may carry with regards to zero carbon emissions.

Our main objection to Karachi’s new big power plants is that they are so close to Karachi’s population that if an accident occurs, the lethal radiation will spread all across the city sparing no one.” – Dr A.H. Nayyar

Safety is always a priority,” said environmental economist Dr Seeme Mallick. She said Japan, France and Russia are not enemies of their people and since nuclear energy first began to be used after World War II, safety measures have improved tremendously due to technology efficiency improvement and there is less nuclear waste production.

There is little doubt that the nuclear industry is continuously getting better and better in improving safety features and standards, agreed Nayyar, but he emphasized “no one can guarantee that their newest reactor is one hundred per cent safe”.

“It is a complex machine, and things can go wrong for various reasons. Every time a serious accident has occurred, it was caused by a new reason. Only a year before the accident, the Fukushima reactors were given a certificate of perfect health by Japan’s regulators, not because they were incompetent but because no one could foresee the queer accident that happened a year later,” he said.

It was Fukushima that prompted Germany to shut eight of its 19 reactors. By 2022, Germany plans to shut down all.

Instead it wants to harness energy from the wind and the sun and use 100 per cent renewable energy to power the country. They call this shift from fossil fuels and nuclear energy Energiewende. “In 2016, nearly 30 per cent of Germany’s power need was met through renewable energy,” said Mathias Duwe, head of Climate at the Ecologic Institute, in Berlin, Germany, speaking to TNS.

Running nuclear power plants may not be cheap, but the costs incurred in meeting the consequences of a serious accident are enormous. It has been reported that it could take 40 years and US$ 188 billion to decontaminate Fukushima.

“Our main objection to Karachi’s new big power plants is that they are so close to Karachi’s population that if an accident occurs, the lethal radiation will spread all across the city sparing no one.” Nayyar insisted the effects of Fukushima accident were observed up to a distance of 30 kilometres from the reactor site. From the proposed Karachi reactor site, the area up to 30 kilometres includes a densely populated area.

Trying to assuage Nayyar’s concern, Zakir Noor Khan said God forbid if an accident did happen, entire Karachi did not have to be evacuated. “The most critical area, the 5 km radius, and where there is a small population is being prepared for emergencies with regular drills,” he said and added: “We’ve learnt important lessons from Fukushima and nothing is being left to chance. For us safety of the people is paramount. The newest plants being built near Karachi are Generation-3, the safest in the world. All kinds of probabilities and more have been kept in mind in the design aspect.”

In addition, Khan said people have exaggerated the consequences of radioctivity. “To my knowledge, no deaths were reported due to direct radiation from the Fukushima accident and deaths in Chernobyl have not been more than 32,” he said.

But the UN’s World Health Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency claim that 56 people died as a direct result of the radiation released at Chernobyl. That may be the immediate consequence, but many say exposure to radioactivity can have long term effects in the form of genetic disorders or deformities in the next generation but little attention or research has been conducted in this area.

But Chashma plants are not near cities with huge populations and still people like Nayyar are sceptical.

“That is because it sits on many active geological fault lines, and the soil underneath is such that in an earthquake it can flow like a liquid.” He said the objections of his and his fellow protestors were noted by the government, and the Environment Ministry held a public hearing on it. “We let it go on the PAEC promise that it would conduct a fresh seismic survey. This was in the year 2000 or 2001.”

“The most critical area, the 5 km radius, and where there is a small population is being prepared for emergencies with regular drills,” he said and added: “We’ve learnt important lessons from Fukushima and nothing is being left to chance.” – Zakir Noor Khan

People like Nayyar have been protesting the construction of power plants, specially the ones being built near Karachi. Despite succeeding in building a momentum within the citizens and taking the commission to court, the construction continues with over 3,000 Chinese working at the site.

“The nuclear establishment of Pakistan together with the environmental establishment bulldozed the entire protest, without showing an iota of concern for the citizens of Karachi,” said Nayyar. He said the environmental regulations of the country clearly require that plans for evacuation of citizens be made and tested in live drills to prepare for the eventuality of a severe accident.

“Both the PAEC and the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency have ignored this requirement. God forbid, if something happens, and radioactive cloud passes over Karachi, there will be mayhem, nobody would be able to get out; millions of Karachi citizen will receive fatal radiation doses, will fall ill and die a painful death. Unfortunately for the Karachi citizens, these power plants have become holy cows. PAEC is now directly under the Strategic Plans Division, and hence under military discipline. This means saying anything against the plants, however anti-people they may be, can be construed anti-national.”

Mallick has a simple solution to that: “Karachi and other cities should have referendum type survey of people to know their opinion; priorities will become obvious.” But she conceded, in the end, the future energy sources will be determined by those investing their money into Pakistan’s energy sector.

A quote erroneously attributed to Dr A.H. Nayyar has been removed from the online version of this story.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Zofeen T. Ebrahim
The author is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

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