Inevitability of nuclear electricity generation
Along Karachi’s coast, construction of two additional 1,100 MW generation III AP 1000 nuclear power plants (KANUPP II & III) is under way. Earlier this month, experts form International Atomic Energy (IAEA) completed the key Generic Reactor Safety Review (GRSR) of these nuclear reactors. These Pressurized WaterPressurized Water Reactors (PWR) are capable of generating 1100 MW electricity each. PAEC, will operate these plants under IAEA safeguards. A legal challenge by some of Karachi’s overhyped and misled citizens about public safety has been dismissed. Now the vested interests campaigning against nuclear power generation in Pakistan have taken their battle to media. By twisting the facts and fictionalizing a purely technical matter this lobby, spearheaded by Dr. Pevez Hoodbhoy and, Dr. AH Nayyar, is creating unnecessary alarms. Their campaign is largely based on creating fears regarding the possibility of a Tsunami or an earth quake hitting these power plants and compromising the safety of the environment; including the human and animal life. A specter regarding necessity of evacuation of entire population of Karachi is being floated to trigger an agitated public reaction against these power generation facilitates. To put the matter in perspective, it is necessary to take a look at the underlying reasons of Pakistan’s power crisis and the global power generation trends.
Pakistan’s energy crisis has two dimensions: supply demand imbalance and affordability. Current installed capacity is sufficient to take summer peak load of the country. Devil lies in differential between generation cost and the cost that consumer can afford— commonly known as circular debt. Therefore, under the circumstance, addition of any mean of electricity must first pass the affordability test; the second test is 24/7 output. Hydel power generation is the cheapest way; but is seasonal and intricately linked to usage of water for agriculture. As agrarian consumption of water has the priority, it is Indus River System Authority (IRSA) and not National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA) that calls the shots as to how much electricity could be given to national grid; exception to this restrictive regime are run of the river hydel projects–like upcoming Dasu hydropower project.
Gas, oil and coal are other means of producing electricity. These are available 24/7 but how much of these fuels could be inducted for power generation depends on their cost, exploitability, logistics and environmental impact. Wind and solar are dependent on climatic cycles and daylight respectively. Hydel power generation is the cheapest, followed by domestic gas, nuclear, domestic coal, imported gas, and imported coal and oil. Globally, Wind and Solar power sectors are attracting lot of attention and investment, however, both are at Research and Development (R&D) stages; and their commercialization at competitive prices is still a couple of years away. Their weak areas are heavy infrastructure and efficient storage systems. Per unit cost of Wind and Solar electricity is much higher than national grid averages. With construction of large dams politicized and domestic gas supply dwindling, nuclear electricity emerges as one of the top viable options for Pakistan.
Presently, 437 nuclear power reactors are in operation in 31 countries. Since cost of nuclear fuel is a small part of the cost of production, nuclear power plants are usually considered base load stations. Nuclear plants operate 24/7. Nuclear power plants typically have high capital costs, but low direct fuel costs, with the costs of fuel extraction, processing, use and spent fuel storage internalized costs. The fuel cost of operations for a nuclear plant is much smaller than the fuel cost for operating oil, coal or gas plants. Generation IV reactors, under R&D, are being designed to completely close the nuclear fuel cycle, with the prospect that all spent nuclear fuel/nuclear waste could potentially be recycled.
In many countries, plants are often located on the coast, in order to provide a ready source of cooling water for the essential service water system so that it does not impact on fresh water. Moreover, plant designs and associated infrastructure works take into account the risk of flooding and tsunamis. Especially the design of plants located in seismically active zones are also required to cater for the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis. Japan, India, China and the USA are among the countries that operate plants in earthquake-prone regions.
Nuclear power is the only viable course that has enabled most of the Western countries, like France (78%), Belgium (51%), Finland (32.6%), Switzerland (35.9%), Sweden (38%) etc in achieving energy independence. In most of such countries, nuclear power generation has touched and or has crossed its optimum level of generation share; thus in some of these counties, nuclear power generation capacity is either stagnant of in slight decline. But in Asia, the trend is otherwise. Russia has begun building the world’s first floating nuclear power plant. The £100 million vessel, the Lomonosov, is the first of seven plants that Moscow says will take the nuclear energy resources to remote Russian regions. By 2025, Southeast Asian nations would have a total of 29 nuclear power plants; of these, Indonesia will have 4, Malaysia 4, Thailand 5 and Vietnam 16. India is pursuing an ambitious nuclear energy programme, China plans to switch over from coal to nuclear fuel as the single largest source of power generation. UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are some aspiring counties; Iran’s keenness for nuclear power generation is well known. China and South Korea are emerging as big exporters of nuclear power plants.
From safety point of view a lot has been accomplished since Fukushima. The nuclear industry says that new technology and oversight have made nuclear plants much safer. Passively safe plants are available to build; and other reactors that are designed to be nearly fool-proof are being pursued. AP1000 power plants, under construction in Karachi, use passive nuclear safety cooling systems, unlike those of Fukushima which required active cooling systems. A new generation of designs for nuclear power plants, known as the Generation IV reactors, are now the subject of active research. Many of these new designs specifically attempt to make fission reactors cleaner, safer and/or less of a risk to nuclear proliferation. Generation III reactors are at least 17% more fuel efficient, and have lower capital costs, while Generation IV reactors promise 10000-30000% greater fuel efficiency and elimination of nuclear waste. Several countries have begun Thorium-based nuclear power programmes. Thorium resources are enough to power current energy needs for thousands of years. Thorium fuel cycle is able to generate nuclear energy with a lower output of radiotoxic waste than the Uranium fuel cycle. Further efficiencies are hoped to be achieved through more advanced reactor designs,
Over the last 40 years of its life cycle, KANUPP I, which is the oldest reactor of its kind in the world, continues to operate in Karachi safely with IAEA certification. Due to growing energy demand, Pakistan plans to increase the share of nuclear energy to 8,800 Mega Watt electrical (MWe) by 2030. This would constitute 5.41 per cent of the national energy mix. Other sources of energy like hydel, coal, renewable, oil and gas, would still have the major percentage. However, this will greatly decrease the pressure on power generation through expensive and imported fossil fuels. When completed in November 2019, K-II&III would add 2,200MW to Pakistan’s electric power, at a very cheap rate. Average price of power generated by Chashma-3 and 4 would be around Rs 9.59 per unit, much less than the price of electricity generated by thermal plants running on gas or oil. Due to economy of scales, new KANUPP category plants would produce cheaper electricity than the Chashma class power plants. Nuclear power is one of the most efficient, reliable and environment-friendly sources of energy. Therefore, Pakistan should indeed look towards developing nuclear energy as its mainstay electricity generation system.