South Asia

Pakistan places trust in nuclear power
By Muddassir Rizvi

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan is on the fast track to building two more nuclear power plants, amid concerns about the country's poorly-enforced safety laws and the secrecy shrouding the plans for the facilities.

The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), the proponent of nuclear energy in the country, says that the two plants are under government consideration for formal approval, and construction is expected to commence "soon".

"Nuclear energy is environmentally friendly, cost competitive, abundantly available and a symbol of self-reliance in a fiercely competitive world," PAEC said in a statement, adding that the new plants were needed to meet electricity needs.

Once up and running, the new plants will increase the share of nuclear power to 10 percent of the country's total energy needs. Currently, Pakistan has two nuclear power plants, the 84-megawatt Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) in the southern port city of Karachi and the 300-megawatt Chashma Nuclear Power Plant (CHASNUPP) near the Punjab town of Mianwali.

PAEC plans to construct the new plants at the two sites - KANUPP-II and CHASNUPP-II - as part of a national energy strategy where the nuclear option has a "firm footing", it says.

The location of CHASNUPP-II, though, has stirred the same arguments against the construction as when CHASNUPP-I was first proposed two years ago. At that time, environmentalists argued that since the Chashma plant would draw water from the Chashma-Jhelum link canal and discharge it into the Indus River, this posed a serious potential risk in the event of an accident.

These fears still exist today. But while the PAEC says that the construction of the two power plants will "begin soon", the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) says that it has no specific information on these projects.

"We have not been contacted by the PAEC for the approval of the prerequisite environmental impact assessment [EIA] of the projects,"says Asif Shuja Khan, the director general of Pak-EPA. According to Pakistan's 1997 environment law, all new public and private sector projects, including power plants, must have their EIAs approved by either the federal or the concerned provincial EPA.

Critics are particularly perturbed by the secrecy and non-transparency exhibited by PAEC, demanding public discussion on the need for greater reliance on nuclear energy. "They [PAEC] black out all information that should otherwise be shared with the public," says Dr A H Nayyar, a nuclear physicist and an anti-nuclear activist.

Concerns about transparency arise essentially from the fact that PAEC has also been involved in the development of nuclear weapons. "They [PAEC] have overlaps with the country's defense-related nuclear and missile program," Nayyar says.

"This is the major reason why they are always hesitant to open up even their peaceful nuclear energy program to the public for scrutiny, whether for safety or accounting and auditing purposes," commented Najum Mushataq, a former research fellow with the US-based Bulletin for Atomic Scientists.

Mushataq is also skeptical about the rationale advocated by PAEC in favor of nuclear energy. "More needs to be done to utilize the renewable energy sources. Once we have exhausted other sources of energy, then we can consider the nuclear option," he argued.

For instance, one official study estimates that Pakistan uses less than 10 percent of its water resources for energy generation. It has around 20 oil and gas-fired power plants run by private power producers. Apart from these, public sector firms - the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC), KANUPP and CHASNUPP - are involved in power generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in the country.

Of the nation's total power generation capacity, WAPDA's share is 55 percent, followed by the private sector at 31.3 percent, KESC and others at 11.2 percent and nuclear energy at 2.6 percent during 2001 to 2002. Pakistan currently has a power generation capacity of 18,062 megawatts to serve the needs of 12.5 million registered electricity consumers.

While PAEC officials justify the new plants, saying that they are necessary in view of the nation's limited hydroelectric and fossil fuel resources and ever-rising demand for electricity - they are tight-lipped about the costs to be incurred by the new plants.

In their defense, PAEC officials claim that the energy they supply to the WAPDA for distribution is cheaper than that produced by other energy sources, especially when compared to gas and fired-power plants, they say. But Nayyar says this is a non-verifiable claim, as "we don't even know what financial allocations the PAEC gets".

The safety aspects of nuclear power plants are also worrisome for critics, although PAEC says that the country's safety record is immaculate and approved by the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA). The country has a nuclear regulatory body, but its credibility has been called into doubt.

"The Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Board is supposed to be an independent body to keep an eye particularly on safety aspects of nuclear-related sites," says Nayyar. "But we all know it is headed by a retired PAEC official and is just an outgrowth of the PAEC. How could it be independent?" he asks, suggesting that its membership be expanded to include citizens' representatives.

(Inter Press Service)
Nov 26, 2002


Click here to be one)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright Asia Times Online, 6306 The Center, Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong.