Pakistan’s Nuclear Program and Environmental Safety

By Behzad Taimur

 

There is no other way to begin an article on Pakistan’s nuclear program and environmental safety than to begin directly, with no tamheed, as it is called in Urdu: whereas public discourse about Pakistan’s nuclear program has focused on its growing capabilities and the possibility of some of its elements falling into terrorists’ hands, discourse on the nuclear program and its possible negative impact on Pakistan’s environment has remained largely absent from public discourse.

Unlike in most countries, Pakistan’s civilian nuclear energy program remains linked to its military nuclear program. Pakistan’s military establishment has historically remained secretive, and its workings and internal information are closely guarded. For this reason, little is known about the exact nature, extent and scope of Pakistan’s nuclear program. When the Abdul Qadeer Khan scandal surfaced, wherein it was revealed that Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, and possibly the military establishment, was engaging in running proliferation rings, Pakistan’s military grew even more secretive than it had been, and access to information on the nuclear program grew even harder to get.

However, what is known is that Pakistan’s sole Nobel laureate, Dr. Abdus Salam, suggested the idea of establishing a nuclear power plant near Karachi to President Ayub Khan, whereupon work on a 137 MW nuclear reactor – to be called Karachi Nuclear Power Plant – began, which was completed in 1972. Pakistan entered into agreements with French and British firms to set up plutonium and nuclear re-processing plants. However, following India’s surprise nuclear weapons test in its Rajasthan desert in 1974, the British firms withdrew from the agreement. The then Pakistani leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto vowed to get Pakistan a bomb and initiated Pakistan’s military nuclear program. This eventually led the United States to pressure France to withdraw from its nuclear agreements as well.

However, work on Pakistan nuclear program – now with both civilian and military dimensions to it – continued, with Pakistan’s second nuclear reactor, the Pakistan Atomic Research Reactor, at Kahuta, being commissioned in 1974. In 1989, Pakistan entered into a nuclear agreement with China, and constructed its second 300 MW commercial, electricity-generating nuclear power plant at Chashma (Chashma Nuclear Power Plant), commissioning the reactor in 1994. Later, another nuclear reactor was added at Chashma.

Presently, Pakistan has four nuclear generation plants, KANUPP-I (137 MW), CHASNUPP-I (325 MW), CHASNUPP-II (300 MW) and Khushab Nuclear Facility (50 MW). The Khushab Nuclear Reactor is the latest addition to Pakistan’s installed nuclear capacity. Pakistan began building a new 1,000 MW nuclear reactor in Karachi to replace KANUPP-I when it is de-commissioned, though work on it has since stalled due to financial difficulties; and a third nuclear reactor at Karachi– also intended to be 1,000 MW – is in the pipeline. Pakistan is also building two new nuclear reactors at Chashma with Chinese assistance.

With such an extensive and expanding nuclear program, one would imagine that there should be considerable public discourse on environmental hazards posed by it. Woefully, there is, however, none. One should like to elaborate a little on environmental hazards posed by nuclear reactors, so as to help build one’s case.

Nuclear power plants create energy which is used to evaporate water to create steam. The steam then drives turbines which generate electricity. The steam is then condensed and discharged as waste water. A large nuclear power plant may reject waste heat to a natural body of water; this can result in undesirable increase of the water temperature with adverse effect on aquatic life. On average, a single nuclear reactor of average strength may raise the temperature of a body of water by 30 Fahrenheit, which is a significant increase for the delicate balance of an aquatic environment. This is especially true of nuclear power plants such as Khushab and Chashma. The Chashma power plants, for example, use water from the nearby Chashma Barrage Reservoir. This means that the nuclear plant is continuously discharging hot water into local water streams. A rise in temperature can significantly increase the chances for aquatic life, starting with the large fish and going all the way down – but especially! – to the minute algae and bacteria to start dying out. In western countries, nuclear reactors often come with artificial lakes for the discharge of rejected water. However, this does not seem to be the case for Pakistan, which significantly raises environmental impact. Similarly, western countries are also known to have use the excess heat to warm water for nearby populations, thus helping them reduce their heating-energy expenditure. This, too, remains unheard of in Pakistan, and local populations continue to depend on gas-fired water heaters and, as in many cases, wood and coal combustion.

Emission of radioactivity from a nuclear plant is controlled by stringent regulation regimes. However, reactors still manage to emit radioactivity through discharge of radioactive effluent, which includes gases and liquids. There have been several epidemiological studies that claim to demonstrate increased risk of various diseases, especially cancers, among people who live near nuclear facilities. Abnormal operation may result in release of radioactive material on scales ranging from minor to severe, although these scenarios are very rare. It is, however, still a hazard. All life existing around a nuclear remains in constant threat of being killed off.

Nuclear reactors have been known to have entered into abnormal function, thus heightening radioactive emissions. The infamous 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Russia killed 65 people immediately, killed another 16,000 due to over-exposure to radiations and consequent cancerous developments, and a further 9,000, mostly cancer-related deaths are attributed to it. A recent example is of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster where an earthquake and a tsunami crippled a nuclear reactor.

Such disasters should raise concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear safety hazards. Even if they do not, then Pakistan has its own accidents: in October 2011, KANUPP-I was shut down for 7 hours due to a heavy water leakage. However, even so, little is known about the precise nature of safety measures in place, or contingency plans that may have been drawn up. Pakistan’s military maintains that its safety measures at nuclear facilities are fool proof, and that it is also fully prepared to handle any eventuality. All that, however, remains a matter of conjecture, and little can be known for sure.

Another important issue is the disposal of spent fuel, and other waste that a nuclear reactor produces. Around 20–30 tons of high-level waste are produced per year per nuclear reactor. Disposal of spent fuel is controversial, with many proposed long-term storage schemes under intense review and criticism. With Pakistan’s nuclear program remaining shrouded in mystery due to its link with, and control by, Pakistan’s secretive military establishment it is largely unclear, what is really done with nuclear waste. Pakistan passed a nuclear waste management policy bill only in 2010, even though Pakistan had gone nuclear by 1976, and had its first nuclear power plant going into operation in 1994. What was being done in the intermediary period? No one really knows.

The Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority, yet another shady military-controlled government agency, is reported to have “proposed” waste management plants at Lahore, Nilore, Rawalpindi, Chashma and Karachi. However, if they were ever built or are they being built, we do not know. Spent fuel is reported to be currently stored in cooling pools on-site in nuclear reactors almost indefinitely. A “repository” for nuclear waste is due to be commissioned in 2015 – however, what, if anything, would continued to be done before that, we do not know.

Pakistan reportedly has a nuclear waste re-processing plant at Nilore, which was commissioned as late as 2009. However, how is nuclear waste transported from Karachi, Khushab and Chashma to Nilore, if at all, remains unclear. The name of Dera Ghazi Khan comes up when the question of waste dumping comes – nuclear waste is sometimes buried underground. However, where in Dera Ghazi Khan? Does it affect local populations? How is the waste transported to Dera Ghazi Khan? Such questions, yet again, remain unanswered. There was some word about a dumping site in Sonmiani in Balochistan as well, but that too is more conjecture than reality.

Pakistani state and its military’s silence on matters of such grave concern is criminal, to say the least. The need of the hour is to initiate public discourse on environmental safety with regards to the nuclear program. There is need, also, for greater transparency and accessibility with regards to the functioning and operation of Pakistan’s nuclear program. We need to know – and we need to know soon – about safety measures in place, and environmental impact mitigation efforts, if any, that have been instituted, before Pakistan suddenly finds itself staring into the dark eyes of its very own Chernobyl.

More Reading:

Siddiqui, Dr. Zia; Dr. Iqbal Hussain Qureshi (13 October 2005). “Nuclear power in Pakistan”. The Nucleus(Nilore, Islamabad: The Nucleus PINSTECH publication)

Albright, David (1 June 1998). “The New Labs”. Retrieved 2001.

For a detailed IAEA report on Pakistan’s nuclear power program visit: http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/te_1030_prn.pdf

PAEC secrecy about nuclear waste dumping is criminal by A. H. Nayyar; 26. 10.10; Viewpointonline.net. Link: http://www.viewpointonline.net/paecs-secrecy-about-nuclear-waste-dumping-is-criminal-a-h-nayyer.html

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