Lack of knowledge and wrongly constructed narratives are a source of misconceptions about Pakistan’s nuclear energy program, which has been running safely for the last four decades.
These misconceptions are based on a set of interesting premises: It is thought that Pakistan is exploring nuclear energy at a time when global trends have changed after the 2011 Fukushima accident; Since industrialized countries could not handle nuclear accidents — such as the US’ Three Mile Island, Ukraine’s Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima — it is assumed that Pakistan then would also not be able to do so; Pakistan is getting Chinese ACP-1000 reactors that have never been tested before and their design is un-proven; If Karachi witnesses a nuclear accident, Pakistan may not be able to handle it; Pakistan cannot safely run a nuclear business as it does not have trained and skilled manpower, operators and a regulator. As you read ahead, all these premises are wrong.
Does nuclear energy have a future?
Contrary to the myth, currently thirty countries in the world use nuclear power and twenty-three of them are planning to expand. Even resource rich countries like UAE and Qatar are going to use nuclear energy. Despite the Fukushima accident, Japan has resumed nuclear energy production and there is a global nuclear energy renaissance. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that the world’s nuclear power generating capacity is projected to continue to grow by 2030. Interestingly, all this is happening or going to happen in Asia and China, India, Korea, etc. which are leading the trend.
Owing to climate change concerns, the protection of energy supply and price instability for other sources of energy, nuclear energy has a potential role to play in the total energy mix considering population growth and associated rising demand of electricity particularly in developing nations.
Is Pakistan experimenting an untested reactor?
There is a common misconception that China’s ACP-1000 nuclear reactor design is very new and has never been tested before, and indeed Pakistan is going to test them for the first time. The fact is that ACP-1000 is a product of an evolutionary process of existing and long-tested pressurized water reactors from around the world.
The only thing new in this reactor is ‘added design and safety features.’ These upgrades are based on proven practices and supported by necessary research and development. Doubting these improvements is akin to doubting a newer version of car that has added safety features on board. It is reassuring to know that Pakistan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority follows a stringent and comprehensive process of authorization and licensing which is in line with international standards and only then can a nuclear power plant can be installed.
PNRA follows a two-tier strategy in the verification of safety issues for all nuclear installations. It ensures that technologies incorporated in design are proven by experience or qualified by testing or analyses.
How are other nuclear accidents connected to Pakistan?
It is important to see the nuclear accidents elsewhere in proper context. For instance, in case of Chernobyl the operators experimented increasing the plant’s output without thorough analysis and research. What they did not realize was that nuclear power plants are not meant for experiments. Such experiments are done on research reactors and that too with a great care. Therefore, it is incorrect to associate such a stupid practice to that of Pakistan’s impeccable operating and regulatory record. Likewise, Chernobyl was a different RBMK design (Light-water Graphite Reactor) and ACP1000 is PWR. We cannot compare apples to oranges.
The Three Mile Island accident in the U.S. happened due to a cooling malfunction. Interestingly, there were no injuries or adverse health effects from the accident. It only takes one Google click to read more about these instead of believing politically motivated narratives about upcoming plants in Pakistan.
It is important to know that these accidents have completely revolutionized the whole nuclear safety regime and associated institutions globally. Individual states and IAEA make tireless and successful efforts in foreclosing any design and safety hazards concerning nuclear energy production. Designs of nuclear power reactors have undergone enormous improvements. The designers and vendors are working on new generation nuclear reactor designs with enhanced safety features, energy efficiency and achieving longer reactor-lifetimes that may range up to 60 or even 80 years.
It is surprising to note that the much-hyped Fukushima incident did not lead to any deaths due to radiation leakage. Despite this Pakistan undertook various steps to strengthen its safety oversight soon after Fukushima and PNRA issued a directive to all nuclear power plant operators to conduct self-assessment in several parameters. Most notable were the re-assessment of natural hazards, availability of infrastructure necessary for plants safety, consideration of the station black-out condition which means complete loss of all AC power i.e. loss of transmission lines as well as the emergency diesel generators available at the plant site. Furthermore, the operator was asked to re-evaluate emergency operating procedures and an off-site emergency preparedness plan.
In addition, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission – the nuclear power plants operator – prepared a comprehensive Fukushima Response Action Plan (FARP) to re-assess safety aspects and emergency planning and for identifying actions for further improvement. Happily, all things are working perfectly in Pakistan’s nuclear energy regime.
Can Pakistan handle nuclear emergency?
Some particular people have lead an effort to create a misconception that Pakistan’s emergency plans regarding power plants either do not exist or are not executable. After interacting with both the operators and regulator of nuclear energy in Pakistan, I have learned that the business of operating and regulating is taken very seriously and no stone is left unturned in ensuring the ‘enactment of this seriousness’.
As an operator, PAEC has developed on-site and off-site emergency plans for nuclear installations in consultation with off-site authorities. Such plans are prepared and reviewed before the commencement of operation. The effectiveness of emergency plans is demonstrated in an integrated exercise before the commencement of operation of the nuclear installation and then periodically. The plans are updated in the light of experience gained from these drills and exercises. In addition, appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that the surrounding population is provided with appropriate information for emergency planning and response.
Is Pakistan alone in global nuclear regime?
As a responsible nuclear state, Pakistan is member of all important international nuclear safety and security conventions such as Convention on Nuclear Safety, Convention on Early Notification of a nuclear Accident, Convention on Assistance in Case of Nuclear Accident or a Radiological Emergency, Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear material and Code of Conduct on Safety and Security of Radiation Sources. Pakistan has taken all these obligations despite adverse discrimination against it in the global nuclear order because it is a proactive state whose good practices in safety and nuclear regulatory mechanism are recognized and appreciated.
Pakistan’s nuclear industry is not working in seclusion, as it actively participates and contributes in the international efforts to promote nuclear safety and security. These efforts include fulfillment of international obligations, implementation of international legal instruments and exchange of technical information and expertise internationally under IAEA umbrella. Participation in Technical Cooperation and Regional Asia Projects, technical meetings and exchange of expert missions etc. are just to name a few.
Does Pakistan have the skill to operate or regulate nuclear industry?
The skill and qualification of the staff of PAEC and PNRA is internationally recognized. Their staff is part of international missions for conducting reviews and assessments of the regulatory framework and plant operations such as World Association of Nuclear Operators, IRRS, OSART and IPSART, etc. The IAEA invites Pakistan’s to its expert missions for the development and capacity building of its other member States. International peer reviews of PNRA and PAEC also recognized the knowledge level, skill and abilities of their staff.
Since the inception of Pakistan’s nuclear power program the country has placed a high premium on the development of its manpower. PAEC has established several institutions for the development of human resources needed for operation of its nuclear installations. PIEAS, KINPOE and CHASCENT are the leading institutions. All the managerial and supervisory positions are held by graduate engineers with a minimum of 6 to 10 years experience in respective fields.
Furthermore, the eligibility criterion for shift supervisors and shift-engineers at the nuclear power plants is graduate engineering with necessary training and experience. Besides a skilled operator, a trained regulator is also essential for a nuclear safety regime. In this regard, PNRA attaches great importance to the competency development of its regulatory staff. PNRA arranges professional training courses for its staff through its National Institute of Safety and Security (NISAS). Likewise, its manpower also regularly participates in international workshops and fellowship programs in specialized fields, on-the-job training, and scientific visits to enhance the technical competencies for the regulation of nuclear power plants and radiation facilities in Pakistan.
Since Pakistan primarily relies on Chinese technology, PNRA has established bilateral agreement with the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) of China and its technical support organizations regarding technical support in nuclear safety and radiation protection. In addition, a similar agreement also exists between VUJE (Technical Support Organization)of Slovakia and PNRA.
These examples highlight that any assumptions about Pakistan’s skill in operating or regulating nuclear energy are mere assumptions.
It is worth asking why do these controversies surface whenever Pakistan tries to become energy self-sufficient? The Kalabagh Dam and Thar Coal project became controversial and now the upcoming nuclear power plants in Pakistan are the targets of a seemingly well-orchestrated conspiracy. Energy self-sufficiency means autarky and a reduced reliance on fossil fuels, which some domestic and international interest groups do not want for the reasons that are best known to them. Like me, Pakistanis should be self-assured that its nuclear program is safe, secure and efficient.
*Noreen Iftakhar has a M. Phil. in International Relations from National Defense University and is a specialist in nuclear regulatory mechanisms.