By Saima Aman Sial
March 03, 2015
Nuclear energy is considered to be a reliable source of energy that steers clear of fossil fuels, releases less radioactivity than coal-fired power plants and stands unaffected by the oil and gas prices fluctuations. Among some basic questions asked about nuclear energy is the question of how safe is the nuclear energy. Presently, there are some 435 operable civil nuclear power nuclear reactors around the world, with a further 71 under construction.
Though Chernobyl and Three Miles Island faced nuclear accidents, only Chernobyl has been classified as a major accident by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Moreover, after Chernobyl there have been no deaths attributed to radiation exposure from the Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs). The plans for nuclear energy have, hence, remained undeterred even after the Fukushima nuclear power plants accident. The evidence over six decades shows that nuclear power is a safe means of generating electricity. The graphical depiction, presented by World Nuclear Association, also illustrates the risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining.
Courtesy: World Nuclear Association
In order to address the concerns being variously voiced about the safety of nuclear power plants, it is important to understand the redundancy of safety features that are put in place to ensure the safety of the nuclear power plant as well as the safety of individuals living in vicinity of the plant from radiation exposure. There are various physical barriers put in place to ensure that the radiation does not leak to the atmosphere. Technically, it includes the fuel enclosed in fuel pallet, pallets covered in metal tubes, the covering around it, the reactor vessel which houses them and finally the containment. Even the containment has two steel-and-concrete domes with airspace in between. The robustness of contemporary generation of nuclear power plants is such that it can sustain a major level earthquake originating from beneath its surface.
Putting the debate about the Karachi Nuclear Power Plants in perspective, the safety features incorporate active as well as passive measures and hence the plant can operate safely without causing hazardous radiation exposure for local population. This report attempts to discuss some of the common safety concerns in this regard and layout the existing measures available to dispel the concerns.
Pakistan’s Nuclear Energy plan and Experience in Safe Reactor Operation
Pakistan’s quest for nuclear energy for peaceful uses is as old as the Atoms for Peace Program of the U.S. (1953). Since then Pakistan has been operating to research reactors, PAR-I and PAR-II, KANUPP and Chashma I and II. Later, when India diverted nuclear fuel from the Canadian reactor for a nuclear explosion illegally, Canada moved out of its agreement with Pakistan to operate its Karachi Nuclear power Plant (KANUPP). The Pakistani scientist and engineers however have been operating the plant successfully without the vendor support for 40 years now.
As of 2012, Nuclear power contributed 4.7% in the overall electricity generation. Pakistan’s Energy Security Action Plan decided to increase the share of nuclear energy in the overall energy mix to address the electricity shortage in the country. The plan envisages 8800 MWe by 2030 and 40,000 MW of electricity generation through nuclear power.
The Chashma Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) have been successfully operating and since their installation no incident relating to the safety has been reported during their operation. This amply demonstrates the skills as well as professionalism of Pakistan’s scientists and engineers in operating nuclear reactors at par with internationally acclaimed best practices. The units 1 & 2 of Chashma NPPs contribute 325 MWe each, to the national grid and have a high efficiency rate compared to other sources of electricity production, as depicted in the bar graph below;
Courtesy – Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission Official Website
Apart from operating at their optimal capacity, it is educating to note that the reactors have been contributing in providing cheap energy compared to electricity produced by Hydro, coal and other Independent Power producers (IPPs), as illustrated in the graph below;
Courtesy – Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission Official Website
As regards the new nuclear power plants at Karachi site, the K-2 and K-3 NPPs would be an important contribution in the overall plan of 8800MW by 2030. Only these two units would contribute 2,200MWe to the national grid and would help overcome the power crisis.
K-2 and K-3 Safety Concerns
Since news about the new units to be installed at KANUPP site, there has been a lot of concern being raised regarding the safety of people living in close vicinity with the plant (within a 30km radius). In this regard, some concerned citizens cite the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, 1997, which stipulates that before the commencement of a project on such a large scale, a public message should be issued alongside the date and time of a public hearing. Hence, they claim they have not been taken into confidence. It is important to note here that the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, 1997, had the provision to skip the public hearing of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) if the case was of ‘national importance’. In this regard, Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) had given an NOC after its experts approved the project in 2013. Furthermore, to address the public fears PAEC would still carry out a public hearing on the project.
Regarding the design features of ACP-1000 plant that China would supply, the Chinese model reactor has passed the Generic Reactor Safety Review of the International Atomic Energy Agency as a third-generation plant after one-year evaluation. With regard to the apprehensions of radioactivity in case of an accident, there are several aspects of the debate that have to be understood. Firstly, before selection of the site, several geological and seismic studies are conducted to understand the site and look for active seismicity traces. The K-2 & K-3 site has been selected after a thorough survey conducted by the IAEA and Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA). The historical experience suggests that the highest tsunami that may be expected in Karachi is 2.8 metres above the sea-level, while the K-2 and K-3 are 12 metres above the sea-level. Moreover, the plant can withstand an earthquake of 9 magnitude on the Richter scale, though the maximum projection for the site is 8. PAEC examined the site ground for major earthquake history, collecting all the instrumental, historical data and claimed that that all seismic fault lines near the plants are inactive.
Addressing these fears that are generally caused because of lack of technical knowledge and understanding of nuclear technology and its safety features, Chairman PAEC Dr. Ansar Pervez stated that “there is more radioactivity in air flight from Islamabad to Karachi than in living next to a nuclear site. He also maintained that the K-2 and K-3 will pose no threat to marine life including fishes and other species. “There will be a limited effect on fish; we’ve already conducted different studies to ensure minimum threat to the marine life.”
The ACP-1000 is a ‘Pressurised Water Reactor’ (PWR) and is in industrial use for over four decades. These are Generation III plants and have several layers of active and passive safety features to augment safety. According to PAEC General Manager Azfar Minhaj, chances of nuclear accident in third generation plant are 1 in 80 million a year. The safety features include, passive safety system to perform residual heat removal, molten core retaining and containment heat removal. The system can provide cooling for 72 hours without electricity. To ensure that there is no release of radioactivity to the outside, there is filtered ventilation that serves as an additional barrier to the release of radioactivity. The double-shell containment also provides additional protection in this regard.
Pakistan is an energy deficient country and is contemplating the use of various sources of energy to overcome the crisis. The load shedding of electricity has caused major crisis for Pakistan’s industry and hence for the economy. To address these issues, Pakistan’s Energy Security Plan 2050, envisages 40,000 megawatt to be contributed through nuclear power. Hence, nuclear power is quintessential for Pakistan’s growing energy needs and to address the ever increasing power load shedding crisis. The Karachi Nuclear Power Plants would contribute some 2200 MWe to this overall energy plan.
Pakistan is one amongst some 31 states that are pursuing nuclear energy programmes to overcome their energy needs. The PAEC is a professional nuclear energy producer that has thus far supplied nuclear power in a cost-effective, efficient manner and has an impeccable record of nuclear safety. The fears about the safety of K-2 and K-3 therefore need to be seen in their right perspective and undue alarm should be dispelled in this regard. The advanced reactor design with in build safety features alongside the review by IAEA provides the confidence to carry on with the project efficiently to address the burgeoning power crisis in the country.
 “Number of nuclear reactors operable and under construction”, World Nuclear Association, available at: http://www.world-nuclear.org/Nuclear-Basics/Global-number-of-nuclear-reactors/
 KANUPP celebrates 40 Years of safe operation, Pakistan Observer, 1 January, 2013, available at: http://pakobserver.net/201301/01/detailnews.asp?id=189666
 Nuclear Power in Pakistan, World Nuclear Association, February 2015, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-O-S/Pakistan/
 “32 nuclear plants to produce 40,000MW: PAEC”, The News International, 27 February, 2014, available at: http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-3-235039-32-nuclear-plants-to-produce-40,000MW:-PAEC
 “Safety concerns over nuclear power plants project site”, Dawn, 12 November, 2014, available at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1143822
 “Nuclear plant project okayed after secret EIA hearing”, Dawn, 3 February, 2014, available at:
 Author’s discussion with a PNRA official on 13 March, 2015.
 “Nuclear power: ‘K-2, K-3 nuclear reactors more safe than Fukushima”, Express Tribune,
24 January, 2014, available at: http://tribune.com.pk/story/662959/nuclear-power-k-2-k-3-nuclear-reactors-more-safe-than-fukushima/
 “32 nuclear plants to produce 40,000MW: PAEC”, The News International, 27 February, 2014.
 Taking into confidence: PAEC intends to gather public support for nuclear plants planned for city, Express Tribune, 18 January, 2015, available at: http://tribune.com.pk/story/823856/taking-into-confidence-paec-intends-to-gather-public-support-for-nuclear-plants-planned-for-city-karachi-city/
 Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission Official Website, available at http://www.paec.gov.pk/Parameters