Pakistan’s construction of two nuclear reactors with the help of China has created media hype in Western capitals. The two reactors, each having a capacity to provide with 1,100 megawatts of electricity to national energy grids are being built in Karachi.
Notwithstanding the opposition, Pakistan’s civilian nuclear energy programme is destined to meet the severe energy crisis of Pakistan. Contrary to other states, Pakistan has a small nuclear power program with 725 MWe capacity but it had been planning for quite some time to increase it substantially.
Since the 1950s, the concept of the peaceful use of nuclear energy has emerged and on December 20, 1951 for the first time, electricity was produced through nuclear energy at the Experimental Breeder Reactor EBR-I in Arco Idaho, USA. Russia built the world’s first nuclear power plant that generated electricity for commercial use though it was the second state to utilize civil nuclear energy after the United States. England was the third in line and so far the process has continued. The main reason for the spread of peaceful use of nuclear energy has been President Eisenhower’s ‘Atom for Peace ’programme launched in the mid-fifties.
As of January 21, 2015 in 31 countries 439 nuclear power plant units with an installed electric net capacity of about 377 GW are in operation and 69 plants with an installed capacity of 66 GW are under construction in 16 countries. Around 56 states are using civil nuclear energy and out of these states, eight are nuclear weapons states. A look at the list of countries using civil nuclear energy shows that almost all European states, two Latin American states-Argentina and Brazil and some East Asian especially US ally states. India at an extensive level while Iran and Pakistan at smaller levels have been using nuclear power.
Given the advantages of nuclear power, countries consider it an attractive option. Pakistan has time and again asked the United States to negotiate what it has done with India-the Civilian Nuclear Agreement. However, Pakistan has been so far denied such cooperation on the pretext of nuclear safety challenges.
Though the issue of safety and security of nuclear weapons is very important and all nuclear weapon states face nuclear safety and security challenges one way or the other, sometimes these concerns are real and sometimes they are highly exaggerated.
The security of nuclear sites and weapons has gained much importance in recent times, especially in the post 9/11 scenario. Security experts in the Department of Energy and Regulatory Commission in the USA presented hypothetical scenarios about theft of nuclear material. The United States and other Western states are concerned about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear material. Various concerns have been expressed in terms of political instability and growing extremism in Pakistan that increases the risks of outsiders’ access to nuclear facilities and materials.
A look at the nuclear accidents shows that the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 had been the worst power plant one and was classified as a level 7 event at the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). The Fukushima nuclear tragedy following a tsunami in March 2011 is defined as the second major disaster after the Chernobyl incident, having intensity on the INES. Another such incident has been The Three Mile Island Accident, the worst disaster in commercial nuclear power plant history.
Apart from these major incidents there have been numerous others. After the Fukushima incident, The Guardian tried to enlist the nuclear power plant accidents since 1952 and identified 33 serious incidents and accidents at nuclear power stations. The news story also highlighted the limitations of data collection regarding such incidents. Of these incidents, six occured in United States and five in Japan, while the UK and Russia both have had three incidents. The other incidents have occurred in developed Western European states.
It is interesting to note that the US, Japan and Russsia, three states where high intensity nuclear incidents occurred, are the leading states in utilizing nuclear energy for commercial use. They have not abandoned nuclear options and have been pursuing their policy vigorously. The US has signed civil nuclear deals with India while Japan not only embarked on building new reactors for itself but has also resumed the negotiations stalled after the Fukushima incident regarding a civil nuclear deal with India.
Similarly, many nuclear incidents have occurred in India as a nuclear accident involving missile occurred on February 23, 2004 at the Sriharikota High Altitude Range. Engineers were testing a motor for the Agni missile when it caught fire and exploded, killing at least six people.
Another safety related event occurred on 29 December 2009, when a fire broke out in a chemistry laboratory at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay killing two doctoral students. These are two incidents that have been mentioned here but these incidents and many others go unnoticed in the Western media, which keeps on focusing its attention on Pakistan.
These concerns about Pakistan are highly exaggerated as Pakistan has not faced any nuclear incidents for the last two decades. China also has not confronted such challenges and there is baseless propaganda against the Pakistan-China cooperation in civil nuclear energy field in building K2 and K3 nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy, along with the renewable and alternate energy sources seems the best option to address the energy crisis of Pakistan.
by Saman Zulfqar