Dr. Ansar Parvez, HI, is the former chairman of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), and also the past chairman of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (2010-2011). He is currently advisor on nuclear power to National Command Authority (NCA). In an exclusive interview with Technology Times, when he was the chairman of PAEC, he briefed about the existing situation of nuclear power generation in Pakistan, and clarified the safety concerns for the two upcoming 1100 MW nuclear power plants (K-2/K-3)
Brief us about current status and performance of Pakistani Nuclear Power Program.
Dr. Ansar Parvez: As far as, the current status of Pakistan’s Nuclear Power Program is concerned, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) has been running Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) since 1972, and has followed it up with C-1 and C-2 at Chashma with generation capacities of 325 MW and 330 MW. C-1 has been operating since 2000 and C-2 since 2011. At the same site, two other units, C-3 and C-4, each of 340 MW capacity, are also nearing completion. These units would add more than 600 MW to the national grid. Moreover, two large nuclear power plants namely K-2 and K-3 with the total generation capacity of 2200 MW are to be built near KANUPP. The ground-breaking ceremony of K-2/K-3 was performed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan in November 2013. These plants would start producing electricity by 2020 and 2021, respectively, providing relief to the load shedding-haunted people of Pakistan.
Coming to the second part of your question, I feel proud to claim that PAEC has a flawless record of safe operation of nuclear power plants in the country for over four decades. The working of our currently operational plants, KANUPP, C-1 and C-2 has been smooth during the entire period. C-1 and C-2 are among the best performing power stations in the country operating at very high capacity factors, supplying power to the national grid at the most economical tariff of Rs 7.02 per kWh.
One thing, I may like to add here. If all the power plants of the country operated at the capacity factors of the nuclear power plants, there would be no load shedding in the country. And if the electricity could be generated at the rate at which nuclear is generating these days, there would have been no circular debt.
Do you think the concerns of the safety record for nuclear power plants are realistic? If not explain in detail.
AP: As far as the past safety record of PAEC is concerned, the facts speak for themselves. The three plants which are on-line have been operating safely, with no pollution and no undue exposure of radiations to the surrounding or the people.
I can recall that when C-1 was started, various safety concerns were raised and questions were asked about the capability of the designer. Time has answered all these questions, as C-1 has operated well and safely. Similar concerns are raised about K-2/K-3. These are also not realistic. In fact, most of these originate from hypothetical doomsday predictions without giving any consideration to the extent to which safety and accident mitigation measures are built into the Generation-III design that K-2/K-3 are.
Let me also elaborate here that safety is the highest priority in the operation of our plants. This flawless safety record is attributed to a multi-pronged strategy which starts by ensuring merit in the manpower recruitment process, from the outset. This is followed by a rigorous and extensive initial training program. Specialized training for reactor-operating personnel is particularly demanding and also involves long sessions on the reactor simulator where their skills are tested by measuring their response to a wide variety of abnormal conditions in real time simulations.
Besides, nuclear power plants in Pakistan have also institutionalized several programs through which a constant watch on safety-related performance is maintained at several levels. First, there are safety committees for this purpose at the plant level. This is further reinforced at the PAEC-Headquarters level by monitoring through the Directorate of Safety. At the national level, there is the independent regulatory body, PNRA, which maintains a careful watch through its own on-site inspectors and technical support establishments.
At the international level, Pakistan regularly invites review missions from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as well as the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) for improving operational safety of its plants. These missions consist of a large number of experts with extensive experience of plant operation. They are provided full access to all areas of the plant for an extended period of time to enable them to arrive at an objective assessment. So far, our plants have undergone six peer reviews and three follow-ups by WANO.
This intensive, multi-dimensional and multi-level system of scrutiny is unparalleled in any other industry and helps maintain high levels of safety. In view of all these measures, if there are concerns still being expressed regarding the safety of our nuclear power plants, one can only surmise it as criticism for the sake of it.
As compared to the current energy sources that we are using now such as coal and gas, is nuclear energy the better option for Pakistan in the future?
AP: In the first place, I would say that our country is deficient in energy resources. So, we must use whatever means we have to produce electricity while paying due attention to economics, safety and environmental impact. Also, it is not possible to make industrial growth unless we have some base-load units which can produce electricity regardless of seasonal variations. Currently, the only two options available to Pakistan for based load are coal and nuclear.
Considering the likely future requirements of electricity, it is not a matter of choosing one over the other, rather both have to play a role. However, I can say that nuclear power is the better option because it is reliable, economical and environment friendly. Various quantitative studies of health and environmental effects of energy sources have repeatedly shown that nuclear power is one of the safest and cleanest forms of generating electrical energy, inclusive of the effects of accidents and the impacts of the whole fuel cycle.
I would like to broaden the scope of your question by comparing the nuclear energy with renewable sources, as well. It should be noted that renewables have very low availability and capacity factors, and also have to be subsidized.
However, development of nuclear power does not prevent us from developing other sources of energy, as we need a whole basket of diverse energy sources in order to meet all our needs. All possible sources should be exploited as far as possible. Since PAEC has the mandate for developing nuclear power, this is what we are trying to do.
In backdrop of Chernobyl and Fukushima like accidents, the construction of K-2 and K-3 is being considered a big threat to the 20 million population of Karachi. What early warning and emergency management plans do you have?
AP: Before addressing the latter part of your question, I would like to throw some light on the former statement regarding the nuclear accidents abroad.
In the Fukushima accident, not a single person was killed or injured by the radiations. Long-term cancer fatalities have been estimated to be almost negligible in a thorough study released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in April 2013. This has been further corroborated by the report prepared by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) for the UN General Assembly, which was released to the public in April 2014.
In another often mentioned accident which took place in the US at TMI accident, and where core meltdown did take place, not a single person was killed or injured, and no evacuation was needed. Future, cancer risk was estimated by the independent investigating commission to be essentially zero.
About the Chernobyl accident also, which took place because the operators were trying to carry out an experimental procedure on a reactor which did not have a proper containment, some facts should be noted; First, amongst the members of the general public in the surrounding areas, there was not a single immediate fatality or injury due to radiation. Amongst the plant workers and fire-fighters, there were 28 fatalities due to radiation related causes.
Secondly, in the 27 years span after the accident, cancer incidence among the affected population has been very closely studied. No increase above the normal rate has been recorded in the general public, except for thyroid cancer. But thyroid cancer is largely curable and the fatality rate from it is very low. UNSCEAR reported in 2008 that in the area affected by the Chernobyl, of the 6000 thyroid cancer cases recorded, only 15 have resulted in death.
A WHO document issued at the 25th anniversary of the accident in April 2011, stated: “Apart from the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer incidence among those exposed at a young age, there is some indication of increased leukemia and cataract incidence among workers. Otherwise, there is no clearly demonstrated increase in the incidence of solid cancers or leukemia due to radiation in the exposed populations. There also is no convincing proof so far of increases in other non-malignant disorders that are related to ionizing radiation.”
Thyroid cancer may be initiated by ingestion of radioactive iodine released in an accident. In its emergency plans, KANUPP has made provisions for distribution of potassium iodide tablets in the surrounding population. The stable iodine in these tablets saturates the thyroid gland and inhibits absorption of radioactive iodine. The effect of radioactive iodine can thus be greatly reduced.
Finally, this is despite the fact that the Chernobyl reactor was a design with many deficiencies in it arising from the mind-set that existed in the Soviet Union at that time. It was very different from the reactors generally used in the global nuclear power industry.
In fact, the experience from all three accidents show that most health impacts have arisen from misjudged reactions to the accidents, such as forcing evacuations even if they were not justified on an objective basis. Creation of an atmosphere of fear of radiation amongst the affected population has further aggravated these problems and is the major underlying cause for their persistence over a long period of time.
Coming back to K-2/K-3, the oft-quoted question is of the vacation plan for the whole of Karachi. The actual evacuation distance and the cone in which evacuation may be required will be determined by the nature of the accident, the actual releases taking place, wind direction and the weather conditions. KANUPP already has a well-defined emergency plan drawn up according to regulatory requirements, duly approved by PNRA, and adopted by the local authorities. This plan caters to the evacuation zone of up to 5 km which is the requirement for KANUPP, and exercises are regularly carried out to test and improve the implementation of these plans.
Similar plans will also be a part of the documentation for the new reactors. Detailed calculations show that even in the worst case scenario, these distances will be rather small (even less than 5 km) because of the special safety features available in the Gen III design of K-2/K-3 – meaning that there will be absolutely no requirement for the people living in the city of Karachi to leave their homes.
Extensive studies have also been carried out for the Karachi NPP site to ensure that the plant would survive the largest earthquake and tsunami that can be expected in the region. The maximum predicted earthquake could produce a ground acceleration of 0.2g, while the plant has been designed to withstand a ground acceleration of 0.3g. Most recent studies have indicated that the highest tsunami height expected at Karachi is about 2.8 meter above Mean Sea Level (MSL), while the K-2/K-3 ground level is 12 meter above MSL. Thus very large safety margins exist against earthquakes and tsunamis.
The K-2/K-3 design further ensures that regardless of the accident type, it would be possible to keep the reactor core cool for at least 72 hours and limit the release of radioactivity. Therefore, in the surrounding area where evacuation may ultimately be required, sufficient reaction time will be available.
Emergency planning for K-2/K-3 will also be complemented by a comprehensive Nuclear Emergency Management System (NEMS) being developed at SPD HQ Security Division to support and coordinate nuclear emergency management by involving its own workforce, national agencies and the armed forces.
Handling of nuclear fuel waste is an immense challenge in the developed countries. In future when Pakistan’s nuclear power generation increases, how will we manage it?
AP: In order to deal with the spent fuel from the nuclear power plants, several satisfactory options are available. In the first place, the very small volume of the spent fuel involved makes it relatively easy to implement technological solutions for its long-term storage or disposal that would keep it isolated from the environment. An idea of the smallness of the volume involved can be gauged from the fact that all the spent fuel discharged from the two plants (K-2/K-3) over their whole 60-year lifetime would not fill up a room of dimensions 15 m x 15 m x 8 m. The fuel discharged in 42 years of KANUPP life is stored in a pool of the size of a squash court at best.
After discharge from the reactor, the spent fuel is kept for many years in a well-protected pool adjacent to the reactor building. The building that houses the pool is designed to withstand external hazards such as earthquakes and aircraft crash. After sufficient cooling, the spent fuel can be transferred to a secure long-term storage facility. There are tried and tested procedures for carrying out such a transfer without undue risk.
A lot of work has already been done on designing long-term storage facilities for the spent fuel from KANUPP and the Chashma units, and actual transfer of fuel will begin soon after the completion of these facilities. Similar facilities will be constructed for the spent fuel from the new plants. It should also be remembered that spent fuel is not just waste material. It is also a potential source of fuel for future reactors. Hence, it is a very valuable commodity which needs to be stored until the conditions are right for it to be recycled to generate more electricity.
It is pertinent to mention here that decommissioning and waste disposal cost for K-2/K-3 is included in the price of nuclear electricity, and the designated fraction is sequestered and accumulated till the time for implementation. Therefore, adequate funds will be available for this purpose. This is standard practice for nuclear power plants and is already being done for KANUPP and C-1/C-2.
Anything would you like to add to clarify the concerns of the general public about nuclear power plants?
AP: To address the concerns of the general public about nuclear power plants, I would like to assure them that PAEC is fully conscious of the safety requirements, and has established procedures and qualified manpower to ensure quality of construction, and sufficient experience to maintain and safely operate the plant. The nuclear power being not only safe but also clean can be a reliable electricity generating source to combat the menace of load-shedding in the country.
I would also like to add that building an energy future for this country is a gigantic task and if we fail to meet our energy targets, the obvious result will be a continuation of our under-developed state with our miseries of poverty, and its accompanying environmental degradation and serious health impacts being passed on to future generations.
We are open to healthy criticism. However, with all the gravity of our socio-economic problems staring us in the face, it is high time that all those with real concerns about the betterment of the lives of the people of this country should use their talents and energy in taking forward the agenda of development for the whole country to bring its people out of the deep gloomy shadow of poverty.
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