Pakistan’s long-term nuclear energy programme
ENERGY plays a vital role in the development of a country. A country’s progress is also estimated by its energy demand and consumption. At present Pakistan has an installed generation capacity of about 37,500MW.
The minimum total demand at present is about 24,000MW whereas the maximum total demand in summers is enhanced to nearly 29,000MW. The country’s transmission and distribution capacity, however, is only approximately 22,000 MW.
This results in hours of electricity outages in the hot summer months. Besides that, over 50 million people are not connected to the national grid and don’t have access to electricity.
An unrelated but major problem that has plagued Pakistan’s power sector besides distribution capacity is the cost of electricity production.
Energy production in a country must be affordable, reliable and continuous and should be without emission of greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change.
There are many sources of producing energy. If we examine Pakistan’s energy mix, we can have a clear idea of where the action is needed to obtain cheaper, continuous, and green energy.
At present, the energy mix of Pakistan is 64% Fossil (gas-38%, oil-16%, coal-10%), 26% hydropower, 6% nuclear, and 4% renewable (solar, wind). In Pakistan, fossil fuel consumption is disproportionally high.
Secondly, the use of imported gas and oil has enhanced the cost of electricity production manifolds.
Third, the cost of electric power generation plants operating on fossil fuels emits a lot of greenhouse gases.
It has also been realized by many international agencies such as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Energy Agency IEA) and Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) that the energy source of a country has to be reliable and continuous.
During the pandemic or any other similar situation, the uninterrupted supply of energy is also an essential factor for the security of a country.
The most important argument that supports this view is that those countries which have enough fuel for more than a year are in a better position to deal with the effects of a pandemic.
If a pandemic situation develops in the future, there can be a problem for countries like Pakistan with regard to import gas and oil for electricity generation.
Pakistan is importing about 42% of gas and oil for electricity generation and is dependent on foreign sources.
The logical solution for these problems is nuclear power. It has many advantages over other sources of energy.
It is a mature and reliable technology. It ensures a continuous supply of energy and also cost-effective besides having stringent safety standards and being environmentally friendly.
Over the years, large nuclear-fuelled power plants were installed in different countries but now many other feasible options of producing nuclear power such as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and Mini Nuclear Reactors (MNRs) are being developed. These have many advantages over their larger predecessors.
They have a low initial cost, are factory produced, no refuelling is needed, and are easily transportable.
It is expected that the first commercial SMR is likely to start operating this year (2021) in a few developed countries that are developing this technology,
Nuclear power is one of the best and cleanest energy sources, produced by disintegrating atomic nuclei in a reactor in a controlled manner.
The first commercial nuclear power generation started in August 1956 at Calder Hall, United Kingdom by a 50MW reactor.
The Nuclear power generation picked up very quickly due to its advantages against all other forms of energy production.
If we compare it with other energy sources it has a clear advantage, such as 1 kg of Uranium-235 produces the energy equivalent to 3000 kg of coal and 1 kg of coal produces about 2.8 tons of carbon dioxide, it means that 1 kg of uranium saves the world from 8400 tons of carbon dioxide. Wind energy production uses a large area of land for installation.
It uses Sulphur hexafluoride gas for coating turbines, which stays for 1300 years in the atmosphere, Solar energy is a good renewable energy source but there is a disadvantage in manufacturing solar panels. They use heavy metals, hydrofluoric acid and nitrogen trifluoride.
The nitrogen trifluoride is 1700 times more toxic than carbon dioxide and stays for 100 years in the atmosphere.
Another problem is after completing their life span of 12-15 years solar panels need to be disposed of.
It is estimated that about 10,000 tons of solar panel waste by 2021, will grow to 800,000 tons by 2040.
As solar panels consist of heavy metals, their disposal will cause huge environmental problems.
Pakistan, a country with a population of 2.3 billion, has been striving for energy sufficiency since its inception.
The country needs a continuous increase in electricity production to meet the growing demand.
To meet the future projected demand of 42,000MW by 2025, mitigation of greenhouse gases and assured continuous and reliable supply, nuclear power generation seems to be the best available technology for the present.
Pakistani scientists are very experienced, highly skilled and have more than 50 years of safe running, handling and managing nuclear power plants and disposing of radioactive waste of nuclear reactors.
At present five Nuclear Power Reactors (NPRs) are working in Pakistan producing about 2335 MW of energy after including K-2 which has been officially inaugurated (21 May) on the occasion of 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Pakistan and China.
The other 2 NPRs K-3 and C-5 are in the different stages of construction, K-3 also of 1100 MW will start operating by the end of October 2021, whereas, 4 other NPRs are in different planning stages.
The nuclear power plants have proved that they are essential to maintain the energy supply and thus a very important pillar for the energy security of the country.
The greatest advantage of nuclear power plants is that they can provide an uninterrupted supply of electricity for more than a year.
With the advent of SMR technology, the running time will also increase and refuelling the SMRs every year would not be needed.
Pakistan has to achieve its targets of producing nuclear power of about 16% of the energy mix, which is 3,350MW by 2021, 8,800 MW by 2030, and 40,000 MW by 2048.
This nuclear power production plan is a part of the Energy Security Plan 2005 given by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and approved by the Government of Pakistan.
Pakistan is on course to achieving the targets set to obtain nuclear energy for the country. This will also go a long way ensuring Pakistan’s long term energy program.
—The writer is senior Research Fellow, Centre of International Strategic Studies, Islamabad.