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A case for reviewing nuclear power plants

Last month, something interesting and unusual happened in Britain that should give a pause to Islamabad as it walks in a certain direction without thinking what lies in store. July 28 was the date by which a new French-built nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in south western England, for which China had agreed to invest some $8 billion, was to get final approval at a special signing ceremony. Just as French and Chinese officials were preparing for the signing and a celebratory party afterwards, Prime Minister Theresa May’s new government announced the project – initiated by her predecessor David Cameron – was under review for further study. No wonder reports say postponement of the deal has angered both Paris and Beijing.

May is said to have had security concerns about the Chinese involvement in the project even as David Cameron cultivated them launching a “golden decade” of cooperation with China. Considering that governments are expected to honour their predecessor’s commitments hers was a rather curious decision. Yet some in Britain, including ‘The Economist’, are happy with the postponement though due to considerations other than security, arguing that although the country badly needs new sources of energy big nuclear power projects such as the present one do not have a future, and that “Britain should pull out of the deal and other countries should learn from its misadventure.” Which makes one hope our Prime Minister also learns something from the example. His government has undertaken to construct several power plants, three of them in Karachi, which need to be reconsidered for reasons more than one.

For long, nuclear power stations have been touted as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired plants responsible for greenhouse gas emissions – key cause of global warming. But cleaner they are not. There is no known method for safe disposal of radioactive nuclear waste power station produce. Then there is always the clear and present danger of nuclear accidents leading to radiation leakages that cause long lasting grievous impact on lives. Even the most technological advanced countries, including the US, have failed to prevent accidents. The number of reported accidents is over 200, and no one knows how many remain unreported. In the first major mishap that could not remain unreported occurred at the Three Mile Island power plant in the US where something caused partial core meltdown in one of its reactors. Although no one was killed, thousands of the area’s residents were forced to flee in panic. The 1987 Chernobyl disaster in the then Soviet Republic of Ukraine is unforgettable for the death and devastation it caused, making the city inhabitable as radiation spread everywhere – far beyond the country’s borders. A dangerous example more relevant to the Coastal Power Project in Karachi, located in a tsunami prone region, is the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster triggered by tsunami. Five years on, the place is still not fit for living; work is going on to prevent meltdown nuclear fuel from polluting groundwater, increasing general fear about nuclear power stations. It is worthwhile to note also that nuclear power plants have been falling out of favour in many advanced countries. While Austria has kept its vow never to allow nuclear power stations on its soil, Germany, Italy and Spain have been in the process of phasing out their existing plants.

Safety and environmental concerns are not the only reason why we should abandon the idea of meeting our fast growing energy requirements from the nuclear source. Although expensive to build, at present nuclear power stations attract interest as one of the cheaper sources of energy. But the cost advantage won’t hold for much longer. Two of the Karachi nuclear power complex projects are to open in 2022 and 2023 while the plan is to construct 32 nuclear power stations by 2050. By that time these plants will have become obsolete as renewable and other alternatives would be providing cheaper energy without the risks inherent in nuclear stations. As technologies get better the cost of electricity generation from both wind and solar power is expected to come down significantly. And the future may hold even other appealing options. Researchers are experimenting with newer ideas such as geothermal plants, tidal power, and magneto hydro dynamic, while battery technology is also progressing fast. It won’t be surprising if even newer sources appear in not too distant a future.

It would make sense therefore not to invest in projects that are destined to be overtaken by superior alternatives. The funds going into nuclear power stations would be better spent on making use of wind and solar power for which Pakistan has substantial potential. Experts think an estimated 50,000MW can come from harnessing wind power alone in the Bhari-Keti Bander and Hydabad wind corridor, coastal belt of Baluchistan as well as northern areas. And of course awaiting development are hydel power projects, the cheapest and cleanest source of electricity generation. According to a former chairman of the Planning Commission’s Working Group on Hydropower and Alternative Energy, Imtiaz Ali Qazilbash, Pakistan has 65,000 megawatts of identified projects and a potential of producing 100,000MW. The large and medium sized projects (excluding the controversial Kalabagh dam with its 3,600MW generation capacity) such as Bhasha, Dasu, Bunji, Thakot, and Pattan pending action are to add 21,520MW to the national grid. There are a number of other sites where smaller projects can generate up to 500MW.

The focus ought to be on all these areas. No one can predict what the energy scene would look like in 2050, when all of the planned nuclear power stations are to become operational. What is clear is that they won’t remain competitive as new technologies come along to elbow out some of the old ones.

Saida Fazal, "A case for reviewing nuclear power plants," Business Recorder. 2016-08-18.
Keywords: Economics , Science and technology , Organizational commitment , Project management , Renewable energy sources , Radioactive nuclear beams , Nuclear power plants , Pakistan , China , America , Britain