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Old Tuesday, June 29, 2010
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Default Nuclear energy the answer? By Pervez Hoodbhoy

It seems odd at first sight to understand why Pakistan, a country that can make nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and has an atomic energy commission that employs over 30,000 people, has electricity blackouts.

Pakistani authorities blame western countries for denying it nuclear energy because it will not sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). The NPT expressly forbids transfer of any kind of nuclear technology, including that for power generation, to non-signatories.

But the fact is that despite a 50-year long nuclear history, and vast spending, Pakistan has proven unable to build for itself even a single electricity-producing nuclear reactor. These are technologically far more complex than nuclear bombs. Pakistan relies on a 40-year old Canadian reactor (in Karachi) and a 10-year old Chinese reactor at Chashma, which together constitute two per cent of the total electricity capacity. A second Chinese reactor has been under construction at Chashma since 2005 and is expected to be completed next year.

In February 2010, China agreed to Pakistan’s request to build two additional civilian nuclear reactors in Pakistan, each of 330MW (about one-third the size of most modern nuclear power plants). To make this affordable China has offered to provide over 80 per cent of the total $1.9bn cost as a 20-year loan. An apparent stumbling block was that in 2004 China joined the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), whose rules prohibit supply of nuclear materials to non-NPT states.

China has not yet formally notified the NSG of its intention to supply the new reactors. It had earlier explained away the supply of the Chashma-II reactor under a so-called ‘grand-fathering clause’, arguing that an agreement had existed prior to its joining the NSG. The argument will not work for the proposed two new reactors. The issue was to come to a head in the NSG meeting held last week in Christchurch, New Zealand. But China did not bring up the issue. Significantly, the US deliberately stayed mum.

So far the US has registered only a muted objection to the Chinese sale. This is quite understandable. In 2008 it had arm-twisted the NSG into agreeing upon special exemption from its rules for India. Thus it has no credible counter-argument to protest a similar deal initiated by China. Moreover, serious efforts to block the sale would deeply irritate Pakistan, upon which the US relies for helping it fight the Afghan war. The cold reality of geo-politics and economic interests has quietly put to death earlier restrictions, suggested by the US, upon global nuclear trade.

China’s interest in pushing the deal with Pakistan is fairly clear. The sale of two rather small-sized reactors to Pakistan is but a step in a larger plan to become a major producer and exporter of nuclear power plants. China is negotiating with western companies to acquire their technology under licence for critical components that would enable it to make reactors of 1,000MW and 1,400MW. Pakistan is simply a test bed and a disposal ground for its small and unwanted reactors.

The impact of the Chinese reactors upon Pakistan’s energy crisis will be marginal. Nor will they contribute to its bomb-making capacity because they are under full-scope IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards. It will take six to eight years after the contracts are formally signed before the electricity reaches the grid, if all goes according to plan. Even then, the new reactors will contribute barely a drop in the ocean. Moreover, the cost per kilowatt will be considerably higher than from other means. The gratitude we owe to our Chinese friends, including the long-term loan, should be tempered by these considerations.

Pakistan’s problem is not primarily that of installed capacity. If all current sources are included, this amounts to a respectable 19,000MW. In principle this should be more than adequate for Pakistan’s power demand, which stands at around 14,500MW. The problem is that a mere 10,200MW is actually generated. About 30 per cent of current capacity is not used. Government incompetence and mismanagement are to blame.

One manifestation is ‘circular debt’ — meaning the nonpayment of electricity bills by the military and various government departments to other government departments. This has had the effect of electricity producers being unable to import fuel oil. Thus, expensive imported plants stand idle.

An inefficient distribution system wastes over 10 per cent of the electricity as it travels along transmission lines, through transformers, and in bad connections. This is compounded by an electricity grid that is unable to effectively distribute electricity from power plants to consumers.

Electricity theft, by rich and poor alike, is another critical factor. For a small bribe, electric company employees create unmonitored bypasses called kundas or tamper with meters. Electricity producers and distributors lose revenue. The solution may lie in installing smart meters that are tamper-proof and remotely read. Stopping power theft would save far more megawatts than will be generated by Chashma’s four nuclear reactors, whenever they come on line.

Finally, Pakistani factories, offices and homes use machinery and appliances that are tremendously wasteful of energy. They do much less work with the electricity that is available. A serious energy efficiency and conservation programme would be quick to implement and could avoid the need to build many additional power plants.

For new electricity-generation capacity, Pakistan should use the vast deposits of Thar coal using appropriate technology to minimise the negative environmental consequences. Or it can build gas-fired power plants and fuel them using natural gas imported from Iran. The only thing standing in the way is the United States’ determination to impose sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas industry. Time will tell if confronting Iran is more important to the US than securing Pakistan’s energy future and preserving an international system on control over nuclear trade.nThe writer teaches physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

Last edited by Andrew Dufresne; Saturday, July 03, 2010 at 05:15 AM.
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