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Going nuclear

Updated 03 Jul, 2015 07:54pm

It is a sight to behold. In a highceilinged shadowy hall, at the very bottom of a swimming pool ‘the size of an average squash court’ lies nuclear waste produced from over 40 years of electricity generation at the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (Kanupp), silently seething and slowly relinquishing its heat and radioactivity to the column of water above it. A metal bridge moves lazily across the pool; a man in a white jumpsuit and a yellow helmet stands on it, idly. In the background, you can hear factory-like sounds: the creaking of machines and the thrum of turbines as electricity is generated and fed to the power-starved megapolis. But it is the pool of water and the submerged spent fuel rods that keep attracting your complete attention. Looking at them, two thoughts come to mind.

First: Lethality aside, this is a small amount of waste to have accumulated over the years.

Second: Has anyone ever fallen into the pool?

The accompanying plant official can’t help but smile. “Not so far, no.”

Even if you were to slip and topple into the water, it turns out, you would have a greater chance of being harmed by hitting your head on the edge of the pool than by the spent fuel rods stacked at the bottom. Every seven centimetres of water cuts radioactivity by half, meaning that the surface of the pool is apparently fairly innocuous. Still, other things could go wrong: The cooling system, which neutralises the heat in the pool, could fail, for instance, causing water to evaporate and the fuel stacks to either melt or combust; pipes could crack, causing leakage of radioactive water; or, if worse comes to worst, the core of the nuclear reactor could overheat and melt.

There are many reasons that make nuclear energy so appealing: Its low per unit cost of production, in Pakistan, second only to the cost of hydropower and equal to that of gas-generated electricity; its availability all year round in contrast with, for example, hydropower which depends heavily on the availability of water in the rivers; and the fact that nuclear-powered electricity generation does not emit greenhouse gases (although critics are quick to point out that mining, fuel enrichment, and plant construction do lead to carbon dioxide releases). But the toxic waste in the spent fuel bay, and the monitors set up on its walls, as mandated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are a sobering reminder of the amount of care and caution with which the nuclear power enterprise must be run (to say nothing of the darker side of nuclear energy, the deadly weapons). Nothing, therefore, can be left to chance. As we leave the area designated as Zone III of the Kanupp complex (there is just one further zone which houses the reactor) and hand in our helmets and lab coats and gloves to the staff in the locker room, they check radiation dosage on the dosimeters clipped to our coat pockets and then direct us towards a capsule-like machine that scans us from head-to-toe for ‘potential contamination’.

From the outside, the Kanupp complex has the faded charm of most government offices built in the 1970s: Bougainvilleas and pathways edged white and blue. The distinguishing feature is, of course, its great big dome and its spindly stack, hallmarks of nuclear power stations worldwide and an indelible feature of the Karachi coastline for over four decades. A postage stamp commemorating the plant – which, as hypernationalists will remind you, was the first not just in Pakistan but “in the entire Muslim world” – featured a somewhat ill-advised illustration of the dome and stack against a sky so vehemently orange it looked apocalyptic.

Employees take necessary safety precautions before venturing close to the reactor -File photo
Employees take necessary safety precautions before venturing close to the reactor -File photo

That was in 1972: The world was yet to be traumatised by the events of Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), accidents at nuclear power plants that took the sheen away from the nuclear dream. Today, as Karachi prepares to add two more domes to its skyline, each of which will house a reactor larger than the combined power of all the nuclear reactors currently operating in the country, some people have begun to fearfully wonder: What if the illustration on the stamp was presaging the future?

In Pakistan, nuclear power has so far been a mere appetiser on the national energy menu, accounting for only roughly 3.6 per cent of total generated electricity. Now, it is set to become the main course. Under the Nuclear Energy Vision 2050, an official development plan, nuclear power will generate upto 40,000 megawatts of electricity by the middle of this century; at present, it produces less than a thousand megawatts. At the last November groundbreaking ceremony for the Karachi Coastal Power Project, which involves the installation of two new nuclear reactors by the sea, each capable of generating 1,100 megawatts of power, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waxed eloquent about “racing towards a load-shedding free Pakistan.” Kanupp-II and Kanupp-III, as the planned reactors are known, are the first steps in that direction, said Sharif.

First, the backstory: The nuclear reactors that will be installed in Karachi, which are projected to be operational by 2019, are designed and will be built by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) as part of a bilateral agreement between Pakistan and China, signed in the early 2000s. The reactors are costing the national exchequer just under 10 billion US dollars and, in order to make the deal more palatable, China is providing Pakistan with a soft loan of 6.5 billion US dollars which, officials say, will be repaid over the next 20 years. It appears that there may be plans for future extensions: The model site placed in the Kanupp-II office also depicts a Kanupp-IV as well as a Kanupp-V — but officials are quick to assure that these will only be considered once “other parts of the country have had their turn”. From a strategic perspective, the nuclear deal benefits both parties: It allows Pakistan the chance to thumb her nose at the embargo placed on her by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and to avenge the favouritism shown to India, and it gives China her first foreign sale in the nuclear reactor business, paving the path for future foreign exports. But the term ‘Made in China’ has a certain stigma attached to it: It doesn’t exactly scream ‘quality assurance’. This, together with the not-too-distant memory of what transpired at Fukushima in 2011, is making life rather difficult for the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) these days.

A few weeks after the groundbreaking ceremony, where Sharif had hailed Pak-China relations (“Chung pa yo yi wan soye,” he said in Chienese, roughly meaning “Long live Pak-China friendship”), an article appeared in daily Dawn written jointly by renowned physicists Dr AH Nayyar, Dr Pervez Hoodhboy and the Princeton-based Dr Zia Mian. “The 20 million people of Karachi are being used as subjects in a giant nuclear safety experiment,” they warned. “It is not too late to ask a few basic questions so that people know what they may be letting themselves in for.”

Control room inside Kanupp-I -File photo
Control room inside Kanupp-I -File photo

One concern raised by the scientists pertained to the Chinese expertise in the field of nuclear technology and the reliability of its exports, particularly in light of the fact that the reactors proposed for Kanupp-II and Kanupp-III plants are based on a new design, whose safety is untested and therefore suspect. (China herself has installed these reactors, in Fujian province, but these will only become operational in 2016). Moreover, other critics note, the fact that China has provided a soft loan to Pakistan indicates her eagerness to find herself a market for her as-yet-untested reactors; on the flip side, there was speculation that Pakistan asked for a certain amount of ‘risk-discount’ while negotiating the price of the reactors.

The PAEC, for its part, has been quick to refute the impression of China as a novice in the nuclear technology industry. There are 29 nuclear power plants under construction in mainland China, PAEC officials argue, by far the most in any country. Chinese experts were recently invited to the United States to provide technical advice on the nuclear power plants being initiated there. Americans have established offices in Shanghai to directly learn from the Chinese experience and Chinese companies, including CNNC, have entered into a joint international venture to set up nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the officials argue, this isn’t Pakistan’s first experience with Chinese nuclear expertise: The two plants at Chashma, set up in 2000 and 2011 respectively, were imported from China and have been “working efficiently”; the construction of two more units at Chashma is also underway. Indeed, China also provided loans on soft terms for the third and fourth Chashma plants, both of which have been previously tried and tested. Investment of this sort by vendor countries is not unusual and doesn’t necessarily imply ulterior motives, insist PAEC officials, pointing towards the Russian financing for proposed nuclear power plants in Turkey and Bangladesh.

As for the reactor model, officially known as the ACP1000, “it is important to realise that this is an evolutionary design,” says Azfar Minhaj, project director for the proposed plants in Karachi. “It is a continuation of the development of the pressurised water reactor concept in China, which itself is based on a reactor designed by France.” Most of the additional features, he says, are safety enhancements: The ACP1000 is a Generation-III plant and boasts ‘passive safety systems’, which essentially means that no active intervention is required if something goes wrong. (The round shape of a manhole cover is one cited example of a ‘passive’ design: If it is displaced by passing cars, it simply settles back into place, which wouldn’t be the case if the cover was, say, square-shaped.) According to Minhaj, these passive safety systems give the plant operators a maximum of 72 hours to act in case of an emergency.

(It is worth noting, however, that the IAEA is currently reviewing the ACP1000 design and is yet to endorse it.)

A road overlooking the Kanupp-II site has in the past weeks begun to stir to life. Trucks and cranes dot the landscape and a boundary wall is beginning to snake its way across the terrain. A residential colony, which will house Chinese engineers and technicians, is nearing completion at a rapid pace. According to one engineer at Kanupp, more than 1,500 personnel from China will be based on the site once the operation is in full swing. A few are already here: Back at the Kanupp-II office, a young Chinese woman in a yellow jumper can be glimpsed hunched over a computer and two young Chinese men stop and chat with Minhaj as they walk past.

Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (Kanupp), a familiar sight on Karachi’s coastline for the last four decades -Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (Kanupp), a familiar sight on Karachi’s coastline for the last four decades -Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

Minhaj points towards the ground being levelled for the reactor site. “That is 12 metres above mean sea level,” he says. Criticism has arisen over the suitability of the site: The coast is tsunamigenic, says Nayyar, and the area is prone to earthquakes, making a nuclear power plant a somewhat foolhardy enterprise. Officials at the PAEC, however, insist that “the present site represents the optimum location for a nuclear power plant in the general area”. Sites at a greater distance from Karachi along the coast, they claim, are more vulnerable to seismic activity or are not high enough or are more prone to flooding. These findings, however, have so far not been made available to the general public.

In another way, the scientists say, comparing Fukushima with Karachi will not be correct. “The last tsunami recorded on the Pakistani coast was reported in 1945; it was 10 metres high along the Makran coast but it was only two metres high along the Karachi coast,” says a scientist associated with Kanupp. “We have interviewed some retired naval officers who were deployed on the coast in 1945 and they said that the sea was only rough that day and nothing more”.

Nayyar’s concerns, however, go deeper than that. “Yes, Karachi has not experienced a very strong earthquake and a large tsunami since the time we have been keeping records but who knows what is happening to tectonic plates underneath, how much energy is accumulating there to be released unexpectedly?”

Scientists at the PAEC say even this possibility has been taken into account. “We have bored the earth within 50 kilometre radius of the site for the proposed plants to check what kind of matter [and energy] lies beneath the surface and how and by how much will it flow towards the plants in case of a severe earthquake,” says a senior scientist associated with the construction of the plants. There is nothing to worry about, he says.

Similarly, while PAEC officials state that an Environmental Impact Assessment has been submitted to the Sindh government and that a No Objection Certificate is consequently being issued, no public hearing, as mandated by law, was held for the purpose. According to a senior official at the PAEC, the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did hold a hearing in the summer of 2013, but only a few experts were invited. That in itself contravenes the definition of a ‘public’ hearing.

Another problem with the site is the proximity to population. As Messrs Nayyer, Hoodhboy and Mian noted in their article: “An analysis undertaken two years ago, in 2011, by the science magazine Nature and Columbia University in New York showed that the nuclear reactor site in Karachi has more people living within 30 kilometres than any other reactor site in the world. …here is a question for those in charge of Karachi, in charge of Sindh and the federal authorities in Islamabad: How do you propose to evacuate many millions of people from Karachi in case of a severe nuclear accident at the new reactors?”

Proposed plan for future nuclear power plants along the Karachi coastline -Alizeh Kohari
Proposed plan for future nuclear power plants along the Karachi coastline -Alizeh Kohari

There are three factors, vis-à-vis population, that need to be considered when selecting a site: An exclusion zone, a low population zone and distance from the population centre. The exclusion zone, according to the guidelines of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is determined on the basis of a designated radiation dosage an invidual might be exposed to if he or she stood at a particular place for two hours at a time. For Kanupp-I, says Minhaj, the exclusion zone was one kilometre; given the advanced safety features in Kanupp-II and Kanupp-III, the exclusion zone is even lower, at 600 metres.

As for the other two factors: Despite the fact that Karachi has a large population, the site for the power plants itself is located more than 25 kilometres to the west of the thickly populated city centre and in a low population zone, argue officials; within a 15 kilometre radius of the site, they claim, population is very low.

Nayyer et al argued that, in the case of Fukushima, “nearly 200,000 people living close to the Fukushima reactors were evacuated and some may never be allowed to return. Radiation was blown by the wind and contaminated the land to distances of over 30 kilometres.” In response to this, PAEC officials cite a study conducted at the Stanford University (by an environmentalist opposed to nuclear power plants, they are quick to add) that estimated that if the evacuations had not been carried out at Fukushima, there might perhaps have been as many as 28 additonal deaths due to cancer in the next 50 years; the lower estimate of such likely deaths is three. On the other hand, the evacuation process itself may have cost 600 lives. That having been said, Khawaja Ghulam Qasim, senior manager for health and safety For Kanupp-I, says that for Kanupp-I, they conduct evacuation drills at select villages (one of the elders at Haji Ali Mohammad Goth aka French Beach verifies that) and that soil, water and milk samples are taken every six months from surrounding areas to check for radioactivity and fish samples every year. (A resident of Mubarak village does confirm this, although he complains that the results of the tests are never shared with the villagers; but an elder at Abdur Rehman Goth, which is closest to Kanupp-I, says he is not aware of any such sampling taking place at his village.)

By the time Kanupp-II and Kanupp-III reactors are functional, Kanupp-I will have been retired. Its original design life of 30 years came to an end in 2002 after which, despite concerns by some experts, it was given multiple extensions. At the time, there were fears that the plant was kept running only because the cost of extending its life was roughly half as much as decommissioning it. Also, at the time, Kanupp was the only nuclear power plant in the country and, therefore, the PAEC’s raison d’etre.

The construction of Kanupp-I was motivated by more than one factor, as Mian notes in a paper published in 2000. In 1954, for instance, the country had established a nuclear technology programme as a result of the United States’ Atoms for Peace Programme; between 1960 and 1967, hundreds of young men and women went abroad for training under the American programme and, when some 106 of them returned with doctorates, a nuclear power plant appeared to be the best way of utlilising the skills they had developed. Plus, India had launched a major nuclear power programme in the 1940s and by the mid-1950s had built her own experimental research reactor; six months after India purchased a nuclerar reactor from Canada, Pakistan asked for a similar one. A nuclear power plant also helped create the infrastructure for a nuclear weapons programme: It is worth noting that Kanupp-I was inaugurated in December 1972, the same year that Pakistan launched its nuclear weapons programme. Such underlying links between nuclear power generation and the nucealr weapons programme, critics feel, undermine safety and make the nuclear power enterprise far too risky to endorse.

Questions also persist over whether the per unit cost of generating electricity at a nuclear power plant includes the cost of operating and maintenance and of future decommissioning. According to one source who wishes to remain unnamed, the cost of producing one kilowatt hour of electricity in a nuclear power plant has been put at 9.59 rupees in official documents. It, indeed, includes a capital cost component of 8.15 rupees, an operating and maintenance cost component of 0.73 rupees (which includes 0.21 rupees as decommissioning and waste disposal costs) and a fuel cost component of 0.70 rupees, adds the source.

There are also doubts over the extent to which the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) is independent of the PAEC. Officials concede that these doubts partially stem from the fact that the former was a department under the latter until the early 2000s and, for the first few years, the staff for both organisations was derived from much the same pool — hence the alleged similarity in the mindset of the people working at both of them. “But this is changing now,” says Minhaj. “And really, when you think about it, given the sort of employer-employee relations that tend to develop, who better to keep you in check than your erstwhile colleagues?”

There may be merit to Minhaj’s argument. But when there are billions of dollars at stake and geopolitical considerations on the side – and given the prevailing failure of accountability in Pakistan – it isn’t difficult to imagine a little shortcut here, a little skimming there. The trouble with nuclear power plants, however, is that if and when critics are proven right, there is a chance that it might by then have been too late.

Umer Farooq from Islamabad contributed to this report.

Originally published in Herald's February 2014 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.