Criticism of K2 and K3
S M Hali
3/24/2015

 

The upcoming K2 and K3 nuclear power plants have been subjected to criticism, some of which is unwarranted

The prime advantage of nuclear energy is that it does not depend on fossil fuels and is not affected by fluctuating oil and gas prices. Coal and natural gas power plants emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. Nuclear power plants on the other hand emit minimum carbon dioxide. A common objection to nuclear power plants is the threat of the release of radiation. According to Hvistendahl, a properly functioning nuclear power plant actually releases less radiation into the atmosphere than a coal fuelled power plant and has a far lighter fuel requirement. According to Helman, nuclear fission produces roughly a million times more energy per unit weight than fossil fuel alternatives.
The disdvantage of nuclear energy is that historically, mining and purifying uranium hasn't been a very clean process. Even transporting nuclear fuel to and from plants poses a contamination risk. And once the fuel is spent, it cannot just be thrown into the city dump because it remains radioactive and potentially lethal. On average, a nuclear power plant generates 20 metric tonnes of used nuclear fuel, classified as high level radioactive waste. Furthermore, nuclear power plants produce a great deal of low level radioactive waste in the form of radiated equipment. Over time, spent nuclear fuel decays to safe radioactive levels but this process takes tens of thousands of years. Even low level radioactive waste requires centuries to reach acceptable levels. Currently, the nuclear industry lets waste cool for years before mixing it with glass and storing it in massive cooled, concrete structures. This waste has to be maintained, monitored and guarded to prevent the materials from falling into the wrong hands. All of these additional services and materials cost money — on top of the high costs required to build a plant.
In this context, the upcoming K2 and K3 nuclear power plants have been subjected to criticism, some of which is unwarranted. Renowned nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy is leading the charge and has filed a lawsuit to halt the construction of the K2 and K3 nuclear reactors near Karachi. Hoodbhoy et al’s concerns merit deliberation. They point out that fission power makes less economic sense. The complexity of reactors, along with enhanced safety features, has sharply increased running costs. More importantly, most people in the US, Europe and Japan think reactors are unsafe even with additional safety features. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, more than the Chernobyl one, has left people deeply wary of official promises. Tim Craig in his Washington Post op-ed on March 5, “Outcry and fear as Pakistan builds new nuclear reactors in dangerous Karachi”, cynically states: “World leaders have fretted for years that terrorists may try to steal one of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs and detonate it in a foreign country. But some Karachi residents say the real nuclear nightmare is unfolding here in Pakistan’s largest and most volatile city. On the edge of Karachi, on an earthquake-prone seafront vulnerable to tsunamis and not far from where al Qaeda militants nearly hijacked a Pakistan navy vessel last fall, China is constructing two large nuclear reactors for energy-starved Pakistan. The new reactors, utilizing a cutting-edge design not yet in use anywhere in the world, will each provide 1,100 megawatts to Pakistan’s national energy grid. They are being built next to a much smaller 1970s-era reactor on a popular beach where fishermen still build wooden boats by hand.”
Azfar Minhaj, the general manager of Karachi’s reactor project, has painstakingly elucidated that Pakistan sought the ACP-1000 reactor because it makes a radiation leak far less likely. Each reactor will have a double containment structure capable of withstanding the impact of a crashing commercial airliner. Additionally, there is an elaborate filtration system to allow the reactor to cool itself for 72 hours without power. Under the enhanced safety features, the authorities are planning for an impact zone of no greater than three miles in the event of a worst case accident. Most of the affected residents would be asked to shelter in place and not evacuate. Concerns about the effect of a tsunami are also overblown because the new reactors are being built on a rock ledge about 39 feet above sea level. Pakistan’s meteorological office predicts that in the worst case scenario, Karachi could face a tsunami of up to 23 feet in the event of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the region.
The ACP-1000 reactor is based on an improved French design. It is important to note that 59 nuclear power plants are scattered throughout France, which is smaller than Texas, and generate 78 percent of its electricity. Furthermore, President Obama approved $ 8 billion worth of loan guarantees to build new reactors in the US while canvassing aggressively to sell nuclear reactors to India. The key is thus in enhanced safety measures and not shunning nuclear energy on a whim.