Nuclear Technology – the viable source of power generation for Pakistan

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THE TERM nuclear is often considered as detrimental amongst masses in general for the matter of historic events of devastation caused by nuclear explosions in two Japanese cities during World War I. The mindset frantically needs renaissance in order to twist the tail of policy makers to prioritize nuclear power generation being safest, cost and time effective and reliable of many other available power generation options such as coal, fossil fuel and renewable power generation sources i.e. solar, wind etc. The past data indicates strikingly low mortality figures in accidents occurred in nuclear power plants that too were caused either due to force majeure or human neglect and violation of health, safety and environment code of conduct.


A nuclear accident is fundamentally a variance between heat production and heat removal in the reactor core. The timeline of such accidents include the Three Mile Island (United States, 1979) accident and Chernobyl disaster (Ukraine, 1986). In Three Mile Island accident, not even a single death of a person occurred, and no evacuation was ordered, although there was a core meltdown. Future cancer risk was estimated by the independent investigating commission to be essentially zero. In Chernobyl accident, amongst the plant workers and fire-fighters, there were 28 fatalities due to radiation related causes. Since the accident occurred, cancer prevalence among the affected population has been very narrowly studied. At the most a cumulative 80 deaths may be attributed to the Chernobyl accident. A further catastrophic release of radioactive materials followed the 2011 Japanese tsunami which damaged the Fukushima I nuclear power plant (Japan), that resulted in hydrogen gas explosions and partial meltdowns classified as a level 7 event. The extensive-scale release of radioactivity resulted in people being evacuated from a 20 km exclusion zone set up around the power plant, similar to the 30 km radius Chernobyl exclusion zone still in effect. No causalities took place due to release of radiation after the Fukushima accident. There were insignificant long-term health impacts of the accident according to WHO report published in 2013.


There are essentially two measures that must be taken in order to reduce the damage after a nuclear accident occurs. Firstly, the core should be kept cool after an accident so that radioactivity is restricted in the fuel. Secondly, if radioactivity gets released from the fuel it must be ensured that radioactivity released is contained and is not exposed to environment. It is noteworthy that the accidents and mortality rate in other power generation options is much higher than the nuclear power. But unfortunately, even the smallest incidents (not accidents) that occur in nuclear power plants is made news headline that paints a horrific picture in general public about nuclear power generation. In contrast, accidents that involve large number of victims are so frequent in other energy industries such as coal mine, oil and gas transport.


Nuclear power plants consume heat produced by nuclear fission reaction to generate steam that drives turbines, like in fossil fuel plants. However, no greenhouse gases are produced in this fission process contrary to coal power plants and fossil fuel power plants and only small amounts are produced across the whole fuel cycle. Nuclear fuel can be used in a reactor for several years. The consumed fuel that remains must be stored and then either recycled to make new fuel or carefully disposed off. The gas emissions by nuclear power plant include tritium that is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen and emits a low-energy beta particle and is usually measured in becquerels (i.e. atoms decaying per second) per liter (Bq/L). Tritium can be contained in water released from a nuclear plant .However, because the amount of fuel used to generate electricity is so much less than that used in fossil fuel plants it is much more practical to do this with used nuclear fuel than with the wastes and emissions from fossil fuels.


The policy makers must contemplate the choice of nuclear technology to counteract the menace of energy deficit in the country that has already pestered numerous sectors causing agitation in economy and denting the wellbeing of the country in many aspects. Nuclear power generation is astoundingly ozone friendly technology rendering zero CO2 emission per kWh unlike coal power generation that amass about 200 pounds of CO2 emission at same scale.


The urgency of requirement of power generation plants in Pakistan is inevitable in recent years because if turmoil of energy shortage persists, the country might be left back into non recoverable state of disharmony. The succinct span of 6-7 years of setting up a nuclear power plant is more viable and time effective as compared to fritter away 12-14 years in dam construction.


Furthermore, there is no idyllic scenario in Pakistan for dam construction as scarcity of water resources itself is an impending gaffe that Pakistan may visage in years to come. Additionally, political consensus is dubious to culminate over the dam construction as history suggests.


There is no dearth of eminent expertise in Pakistan to setup the nuclear power technology in Pakistan in order to foster the energy production in years to come. The extended life cycle of nuclear power plants also put them at top brass of optimal methods of power generation as nuclear power plants can be operated for many months without interruption, ensuring reliable supply of electricity. Nuclear power plants are capable to generate electricity “24/7” for many months at a time, without interruption.


Presently, Pakistan has a small nuclear power program with 792 MWe capacity but is endeavoring to enhance this substantially whereas the total power generation capacity of the 12 existing hydropower projects is 6,516 MWe (as per presentation by WAPDA to the National Assembly Standing Committee on water and power in 2012) and the thermal power generation capacity is 12,169 MW. Based on the present generation capacity the hydro: thermal/nuclear mix in the country is 29:71. At KANUPP a 4800 m3/day MED desalination plant was commissioned in 2012, though in 2014 it was reported as 1600 m3/day.


The unit cost of Chashma nuclear power plants is Rs.6.35/kWh whereas the other sources cost is much higher.


The exigency of power generation in country therefore prompts the policy makers to realize the need of unconventional method of power generation that must be unswerving and feasible. The ground breaking of Karachi Coastal Nuclear Power Plants (K-2/K-3) is one commendable step taken by the Government and is also a hint of realization at the top level which is definitely a silver lining in current dismal circumstances. The K-2/K-3 power plants will contribute a combined 2200 MWe to the grid. To summarize, after hydro power generation, nuclear power generation is the most cost effective, safe, eco friendly, reliable and long lasting method of power generation that can serve without interruption for a stretched time period. Therefore; its proportion in contribution of power generation which is at present 4.7% (792 MWe) of overall production must be burgeoned in order to resurrect the disheveled power sector of Pakistan.


The writer is associated with Weekly Technology Times as Editorial Assistant. He can be reached at ahsan@technologytimes.pk.


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