Safety and Security Concerns Regarding Pakistan’s Nuclear Energy Policy

 

Safety concerns with regard to the expansion of the Chashma plant came to light soon after the Fukushima incident in Japan, especially in the light of supposed faulty design of the plant modelled after Qinshan I. Moreover, China over the years has improved the design of Qinshan I and approached other countries to construct new nuclear reactors within China rather than building more of the same type.[i] This has further raised concerns as to how safe the design of Chashma nuclear plant is in reality. The expansion of the civilian nuclear sector in Pakistan has made India uneasy especially taking into account the lack of safety associated with the Chashma plant which is geographically close to India’s Punjab. A nuclear disaster in this case would not only impact Pakistan but the impact on India would be equally dangerous.

 

Concerns in terms of the overall safety of the nuclear plants and a possible leakage from the Chashma plant as reported in the case of the KANUPP plant therefore still linger. Such a scenario could lead to groundwater contamination in Punjab, which forms the agricultural hub of Pakistan and could cause major problems for India’s neighbouring states. Moreover, many studies have shown that several districts within Punjab have highly contaminated ground water consisting of arsenic and fluoride in over 18 districts.[ii] Although this contamination is not related to any nuclear related leakage, the possibility of such a disaster exists. Such concerns are fuelled by the lack of data released by the PAEC on the geological and geophysical surveys around the Chashma site. In fact, certain reports suggest that the US NCR (National Regulatory Commission) guidelines have not been met during the construction of the plant in the case of an earthquake.[iii] Moreover, when the plant was constructed, China’s lack of experience in the field intensifies safety concerns.

 

The issue of security has become crucial especially with KANUPP facility which came into operation in 1972, outliving its shelf-life. The ageing plant was given a ten year extension and raised alarms when an emergency was declared following a radiation leak. In the 1990s as well, radioactive cooling water reportedly leaked but the accident was downplayed by the Pakistani Government. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) Chairperson Ansar Pervaiz maintained that the Karachi plant was safe in the case of a nuclear disaster and ‘can remain unaffected in every season’.[iv] He further cited the Chashma plant as an example to depict the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear plants. Also, a US study conducted in 2014 on worldwide security of nuclear material ranked Pakistan 22 out of 25 countries and stated it as ‘most improved’ country out of nine nuclear armed states at safeguarding nuclear materials.[v]

 

Although, the strategic nature of Sino-Pakistan cooperation on civilian nuclear power is stark, Pakistan for its part maintains that nuclear power is crucial to resolving its existing energy crisis. PAEC Chairperson pointed out that renewable energy sources were only ‘appetisers’[vi] to solve the energy shortage and increase the need for nuclear power. From 2000 to 2012 Pakistan’s nuclear sector saw an annual growth of 15.7 per cent on the grid installed capacity.[vii] The PAEC claims it seeks to augment the nuclear energy output to 8,800 MW by 2030 while, the current nuclear power output is only 750 MW of the total energy output. Therefore, nuclear power is being seen as a viable option to solving Pakistan’s existing energy crisis, although roadblocks exist in terms of funding, the lack of indigenously developed industry and imposition of external sanctions and embargoes.

 

Conclusion

 

Nuclear power is not the only solution to the steep energy shortage facing Pakistan. Alternatives in the form of hydropower, solar and wind exist. Pakistan reportedly has a hydropower potential of 100,000 MW. Significantly, in Punjab alone the current Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has launched several energy and welfare projects with Chinese assistance. Coal-based power projects are under construction in Sahiwal and Nadipur each set to produce about 660 MW and 100 MW respectively.[viii] The Dongfang Electric Corporation of China is involved in the construction of the Nandipur project. Furthermore, Pakistan’s first solar power plant, namely Quaid-e-Azam solar power project at Bahawalpur was inaugurated this year having about 400,000 solar panels.[ix] Interestingly, it is a joint venture between the state government of Punjab and China and is forecasted to produce about 1000 MW of electricity. Pakistan has also been considering the pipeline option seriously. The long talked about Iran-Pakistan pipeline and TAPI pipeline are also being looked into. Under the previous Zardari Government, Pakistan pushed for the pipeline with Iran ignoring the US pressure against such a deal.

 

The close cooperation between China and Pakistan depicts how the Sharif Government is seeking to resolve its energy problem through the strategic prism. The role of nuclear power in resolving Pakistan’s energy crisis remains debatable, but Pakistan is viewing it as a feasible option. The larger strategic role of the growing nuclear sector in Pakistan casts shadow over the viability of such an option, especially with growing concerns of the safety of such facilities. Although, the need for alternative forms of energy is crucial for Pakistan, its increasing civilian nuclear cooperation with China proves worrisome for India. The Chashma plant, which comes under only partial safeguards of the IAEA, is seen more as a case of proliferation under the existing control regimes of the NSG.

 

The expansion of the civilian nuclear sector as a solution has been advocated both by the previous Zardari Government when the KANUUP deal was discussed with China and became a reality under the present Sharif Government. This depicts how the nuclear option to solving energy crisis is accepted in Pakistan across the political spectrum. Therefore, with both KANUUP and CHASNUUP being funded by China, India’s fears taking into account the strategic nature of such cooperation between its neighbours would rise. The lack of international safeguards, debates regarding the feasibility of the reactor designs coupled with proliferation worries with regard to Pakistan’s civilian nuclear programme are not expected to abate in the foreseeable future.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

 

[i] S. Chandrasekharan, “Chashma Nuclear Power Plant: CHASNUPP will Continue to be Accident Prone”, South Asia Analysis Group, no. 295, August 16, 2001, http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/paper295, (accessed on July 29, 2014).

[ii] M. IrshadRamay, Tameez Ahmad, Oleg V. Shipin, David Jezeph and A. Kadushkin, “Arsenic Contamination of Groundwater and its Mitigation in the Province of Punjab (Pakistan)”, World Health Organisation,http://www.who.int/household_water/resources/Ramay.pdf, (accessed on July 20, 2014).

[iii] Zia Mian and A.H. Nayyar, “Pakistan’s Chashma Nuclear Power Plant: A Preliminary Study of Some Safety Issues and Estimates of the Consequences of a Severe Accident”,Princeton Environmental Institute, no. 321, December 1999, https://www.princeton.edu/pei/energy/publications/reports/No.321.pdf, (accessed on July 20, 2014).

[iv] “Nuclear Safety: Radiation Leak from K-2, K-3 nuclear plants a far cry, explain experts”, The Tribune, February 17, 2014, http://tribune.com.pk/story/672625/nuclear-safety-radiation-leak-from-k-2-k-3-nuclear-plants-a-far-cry-explain-experts/, (accessed on June 7, 2014).

[v] Talha Ahmed, “2014 Report: Pakistan ‘most improved’ in nuclear security, India not so”, The Tribune, January 11, 2014, http://tribune.com.pk/story/657377/2014-report-pakistan-most-improved-in-nuclear-security-beats-india/, (accessed June 2, 2014).

[vi] “Nuclear Safety: Radiation Leak from K-2, K-3 nuclear plants a far cry, explain experts”, The Tribune.

[vii] Syed Shaukat and AfiaNoureen, “Nuclear Power Generation: Challenges and Prospects”, in Solutions for Energy Crisis in Pakistan, (IPIR: Islamabad, 2013), http://ipripak.org/books/secp.pdf, (accessed on June 7, 2014).

[viii] Imaduddin, “Shahbaz Sharif for Early Completion of Energy and Welfare Projects”, Business Recorder, May 25, 2014, http://www.brecorder.com/pakistan/politics-a-policy/174304-shahbaz-sharif-for-early-completion-of-energy-welfare-projects.html, (accessed on June 8, 2014).

[ix] Meena Menon, “Pakistan’s First Solar Power Project Launched”, The Hindu, May 9, 2014, http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/south-asia/pakistans-first-solar-power-project-launched/article5993633.ece, (accessed on July 9, 2014).