111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Nuclear power plants: Is society’s concern justified?

In an age where the world faces the impact of the continued use of fossil fuels on climate change and global warming, there is a need to focus on alternative sources of fuel to power the future. Looking at alternative sources of power, nuclear power generation has to date been an important and viable option. Nuclear power plants can be costly to build but are cheaper to fuel and operate, thus offers a better return on investment than any other renewable energy resource. Nuclear power generation has always been tainted with environment and safety concerns by certain nuclear opposition groups.

In Pakistan, currently nuclear power generation accounts for 4.2% of total electricity generation. The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) was Pakistan’s first nuclear power plant built to generate 137 MW. The plant is located in the western part of Karachi and has been in operation since 1972. Presently, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) plans to add two 1100 MW plants (K2 and K3) in the same vicinity. The plants will be built based on the ACP-1000 design developed by the Chinese. The power plants are expected to be an important part of Pakistan’s energy mix. The construction of the plants is in its planning stages and a public hearing has been planned.

One of the key concerns of the people of Karachi is the impact on health in proximity of the nuclear plant. In a typical nuclear reactor, fuel rods release neutrons, which bombard other fuel rods to create a controlled nuclear fission chain reaction. This chain reaction produces large amounts of heat which is used to generate steam and in turn electricity. In general the entire process has a series of controls which prevent release of radiation into the environment. When operating, the nuclear power plant produces a miniscule amount of direct radiation. The exposure to radiation from a nuclear power plant would be approximately 0.1 millirem per year, which is much lower than the exposure to natural background radiation.

Whilst it may come as a surprise, coal ash – a by-product which is produced in coal power generation in large quantities also has radioactive properties. Uranium and Thorium are two minerals which are present in high quantities and get concentrated in the coal power generation process. When exposed to the air, the coal ash carries around twice as much more radioactive material than the radiation emitted by a nuclear plant.

Nuclear power has been powering energy in many western countries for many years. In France, over 75% of the country’s electricity generated is from nuclear power. France has invested in nuclear power in the last 40 years to increase the self sufficiency of the country after the oil crisis in 1973. Most power plants in France are where electricity consumption centers are, ie, in close proximity to towns and villages and provide highly skilled jobs. Other countries that are extensively using nuclear energy in the West include Belgium, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Sweden, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Finland.

The general perception about power plants is the impact of nuclear fallout at the time of an accident. The fear that uncontrolled radiation released from the plant has the potential to have an impact on the environment and can pose an increased risk of exposure to radiation. Whilst accidents from nuclear power plants have been much publicized in the news, more than 400 nuclear power plants have been running for more than 30 years without any cause of concern.

The apprehension in relation to the proposed K2 and K3 power plants has been in the location selected. The proximity to the shore and positioning in an earthquake prone zone have led to the concerns of what would happen if a natural calamity, such as the Great East Japan Earthquake, would hit Karachi’s coast. The earthquake in Japan was an offshore event and a Tsunami was generated causing much damage to a number of cities in Japan. It has been reported that 11 reactors had been operating in the region and all shut down automatically when the earthquake hit. There were no damages to the reactors from the earthquake. The reactor proved to be vulnerable though to the Tsunami. The Daiichi reactors in Fukushima have been affected and have been a cause for concern.

The K2/K3 site has been evaluated for earthquake activity through simulations and the reactors chosen have a capacity to withstand the seismic activity with Pakistan’s fault lines. Similarly, a ‘Tsunami Hazard Assessment’ has been conducted using international guidelines. The highest recorded Tsunami generated at the Makran Coast in 1945 has been 14m high. This had raised the sea level by 1.5 m at the K2/K3 site. In simulations, earthquake of a higher Rector scale have identified the maximum rise in sea level to be 2.8m. The ground level of the proposed sites is 12m above sea level, thus a tsunami will pose little risk to the plants.

The PAEC can pride itself on its impeccable safety record which it has maintained in running the original KANUPP plant since1972. There is a disaster preparedness plan which the PAEC enforces with regular drills and safety checks. In addition, the present proposed designs of the K2 and K3 plants have reportedly been designed with a much higher accident safety level.

The addition of the K2 and K3 plants presents a way forward for Pakistan to generate electricity in a cheap and environment friendly form. It is unfortunate that the public has little information on the level of studies and analyses which has been done prior to the decision to establish the proposed nuclear power plant. Little information on plant safety is available to the general public. The proposed public hearing by the PAEC will work towards allaying the fears and help instill the pride society should feel in establishing a form of electricity generation which can provide a release from the ever growing circular debt.

(The writer specializes in sustainability strategies and communications. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the newspaper)

Nazish Shekha, "Nuclear power plants: Is society’s concern justified?," Business recorder. 2015-04-02.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social needs , Social development , Nuclear energy , Energy crisis , Climate change , Power generation , Nuclear plant , Economic issues , Fossil fuels , Pakistan